Review: John Ruppert at the Kohl Gallery

There are elemental forces at work in John Ruppert’s work. In his exhibit at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery, on view through October 6, Ruppert investigates the moon, the sun, gravity, and the alchemy of fiery heat and metals, in short, the forces that made this earth and keep it going.

A rock sits on the gallery floor side by side with its twin, a copy of itself cast in iron. Would you look at the shadowy concavities, craggy angles and weightiness of this rock as closely if it sat alone? Staged with its duplicate, it invites puzzling out the differences between its grainy mineral textures and the faintly velvety rusting surface of the casting. The intense heat of molten metal comes to mind, but how does that compare with the unimaginable fiery temperatures and pressures that formed the rock? And which is more interesting, the rock or its manmade facsimile?

Ruppert is a wizard at raising such questions, and he works on many levels. Some of his concerns are familiar to any student of art. Catching shadows cast on water, he plays with foreground and background in a photo of moonlight on a lake, and he pushes the boundaries of perception with a black-on-black photo of a spruce tree wreathed in darkness. With his tall, jagged sculptures cast from wood splintered by lightning, he casually references “Bird in Flight,” Brancusi’s inspired encapsulation of the joyous rush of flight. Duchamp’s found object sculptures and the Minimalists’ use of industrial materials are the predecessors of his turning of a mundane and slightly obnoxious material, chain-link fencing, into art.

A long-time teacher of sculpture and drawing at the University of Maryland, College Park, and veteran of many museum and gallery shows, he is thoroughly ensconced in the art world. But Ruppert doesn’t set his sculptures on pedestals, and that’s a clue that the real subject of his work is the natural world. By placing his sculptures directly on the floor, he grounds them, maintaining their simplicity and signally they are truly of the earth.

The relationship of earth and sky is fundamental in much of Ruppert’s work, and he explores it in both his photographs and his “Lightning Strike” series. Inspired by a shattered piece of pine he found while walking in the woods, the latter works on a theme familiar in art as well as in folklore—the tree as a conduit between the two realms. In his bronze or iron castings of wood splintered by lightning, the strength and structure of the growing tree are faithfully reproduced in the details of its wood grain. The violent power of the lightning is also plain to see, particularly in the gleam of a polished edge in “Bronze Wall Strike.” Curiously, the effect is a simultaneous evocation of the tree, the lightning and the devastating instant of impact.

Ruppert’s photographs also capture meetings in time and space. His digital shots of shifting light and darkness are so subtly and richly hued that they read almost as paintings or pastel drawings. Quieter and more introspective than his sculptures, they speak of even more immense forces and remind us that the changing light of sun and moon were for millennia the only clues humans had to the mechanics of earth’s relationship to the cosmos.

The seemingly monochrome “Final Light” delicately blooms with color as you focus in on its gray sky tinged with blue above a horizon marked with three dark islands. In the sea spreading before them, gray-blue and gray-pink gently weave together to form waves. The luminous softness Ruppert has captured comes from the light of the setting sun refracting through the atmosphere back to the eastern horizon. In this instant, as sea, islands and the breathable layer of air protecting them wait to be engulfed by the approaching darkness, you can feel the mighty turning of the earth rolling away from the sun.

The photographs and cast sculptures in this exhibit share a sensuous elegance that speaks of the power and beauty of the natural world, but one sculpture is odd man out. “Crucible,” an open-bottomed cone of chain-link fencing, stands by itself near a corner of the gallery. Gleaming in the gallery lights and radiating intricately patterned shadows on the floor, it has a kind of beauty but it’s also mildly off-putting. Why would Ruppert use this bland, utilitarian material? It’s another one of his mischievous questions.

A crucible is a vessel in which metals or other substances are transformed into something new. It’s a physical version of the mythic cauldron of possibilities, the alchemical source of all creation. Open at the bottom (perhaps indicating open-ended possibilities), it’s also a diagram of gravity. The weave of the fencing pulls against itself as gravity pulls down on its flaring sides. Its circular symmetry preserves its delicate balance and neatly forms a metaphor for the equilibrium that makes life on earth possible.

Primary forces like gravity and sunlight go almost unnoticed in everyday life but they’re always present. Noticing them is not our habit, at least not outside the parochial boundaries of the sciences. Yet earlier cultures considered them to be key to existence and made a point of acknowledging and celebrating them. This is a nearly lost sensibility and perhaps it’s at the root of our modern-day lack of a deep understanding of our place on earth. With simple and straightforward means, Ruppert slyly conjures the intricate relationships of natural forces on this planet.

Ruppert is first in a series of Distinguished Visitors brought to Washington College as part of its new initiative, Sandbox. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Sandbox is an interdisciplinary program investigating the relationships of the individual, society and the environment through creative collaboration between the arts and the sciences.