Unnatural Nature

John Ruppert uses man-made objects to pay homage to nature

In his fourth solo exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery, The Nature of Things, veteran sculptor John Ruppert continues his ongoing conversation with geological forms and natural forces, while adding his less-exhibited photography and video to the mix. Ruppert’s known for his elegant metalwork and exceptional reproductions of natural objects, particularly pumpkins and splintered wood, and his current exhibition is overtly Zen. Concealed from the street with two large shades over the front window, which serve to obscure the bustling, unpredictable outdoor distractions from the calm gallery contents, The Nature of Things is an enclave of calm on North Charles Street.

At the front of the gallery, a large, deceptively realistic iron rock sits illuminated in the corner. The small manufactured boulder sits to the side of a wedge-shaped metal grid that supports the weight of a large metal object resting diagonally across the incline. “Sunken Grid With Strike” is a combination of inorganic metal mesh with one of Ruppert’s signature wood-like forms. Falling somewhere between the organized structures of Sol LeWitt and the natural arrangements of Andy Goldsworthy, the sculpture on its own is elegant and pleasantly simple. Ruppert adds an experimental video element, which had its Baltimore debut at Grimaldis at Area 405 in June of 2008. The accompanying video piece, a full frame of koi fish swimming slowly in a pond, was filmed last year during the artist’s trip to Shanghai. The piece is projected onto the floor and wall around and onto the sculpture, creating a lava-lamp effect, with slow-moving blobs of orange trapped within the visible frame edge. While algae, barnacles, or deep-sea imagery would have more directly suggested submersion, the koi steer the mood away from potential water anxiety and into an Eastern sensibility, which spills out into the rest of the exhibition.

Like a Zen garden, the elements in the exhibition sit within the minimal landscape of the long narrow gallery. In the rear room, a single piece, “Core With Rocks (2011),” a circular metal sculpture with three outlying cast-iron rocks, has a suggested expanding energy that (along with its large proportions) fills the entire divided exhibition space. Radiating in rings of wire mesh, which become more optically dense toward the center of the “core,” Ruppert’s sculpture mimics the calming, repetitive concentricity of water ripples—a more contemporary substitution, perhaps, for raked sand. Simultaneously delicate and imposing, “Core” pauses an imagined elemental pulse. Dramatically spot-lit as nature could never replicate, the constructed material qualities are enhanced—oxidized iron rocks glow a Martian red, the steel sparkles—and add their own unique allure.

Between the two open exhibition spaces, the artist has included a series of landscape photographs. These serene images of clouds, water, and hazy horizons directly freeze the atmospheric conditions and natural phenomena that serve as mental backdrops to the sculptural works: expansive dark clouds over a still coast, sunlight bursting through a murky sky. Ruppert’s photos, like his cast-rock reproductions, offer another impression of nature as it is seen and captured by the artist.

In addition to the gallery exhibition, Ruppert will be unveiling a three-day satellite show during this year’s Artscape festival at his Druid Hill Avenue studio. While the works at Grimaldis are all made within the past year, the studio show will include works from throughout the artist’s 20-plus-year Baltimore career, including pieces from his Lightning Strike series, Celestial series (rapid prototypes), and a chain-link sculpture, along with the debut of a new sound installation. In contrast to the pristine white gallery and bonsai-like control of each element within the Grimaldis space, the studio show will allow viewers a glimpse at the artist’s mental and physical workplace, where each piece has at some point been a work in progress.

The Nature of Things presents a series of constructed objects that defy their artificiality and create moments of suggested harmony between artist, observer, and nature. Transforming space into serene, meditative esplanades through organic pacing and order, Ruppert’s use of space, light, form, and texture affect the equilibrium of each piece in equal measure. By opening his studio to the public, Ruppert reveals his awareness and control of each of these elements throughout the entirety of his process.