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Kathy Ruttenberg: The Earth Exhales.

KATHY RUTTENBERG IS AMONG THE MANY CERAMISTS CURRENTLY ENGAGED WITH figuration, a focus in clay that seems to rise to the top every couple of decades and is certainly strong now. She creates imaginative-to-bizarre beings posed in strange-to-surreal scenes. The work is characterised by disparities of scale, some unpleasant surfaces, a gender or sexual subtext and a lineage traceable to Gothic grotesquery, Greek mythology or the original gruesome versions of the Grimms' fairy tales. Every female wears pointy-toed shoes with heels of various heights on her impossibly tiny feet, the males have animal heads and many bodies are perforated, with one hacked into segments. It is disconcerting: the works evoke engrossing narrative filaments that never quite weave into a strand, leaving the viewer tantalised but puzzled.

One might ask why these need to be in clay. Ruttenberg called the show The Earth Exhales and maybe that anthropomorphism is enough of a reason: tying humans to nature is, shall we say, grounded in clay. Grounded, in fact, is the title of a 2009 ceramic and bronze female figure. It is a blued-eyed blonde woman in a green dress, lying on her back, lifted slightly off the surface by her head, elbows and the rigid skirt from which her fishnet-stocking-clad legs emerge. From her breasts rise stylised grey oak trees with one leaf on each branch. An orange lizard rests on her left forearm. On her skirt are flowers with six or seven lavender petals and a face at the centre. Here person becomes vegetation (an exaggeration of the natural process of recycling nutrients) and vegetation becomes person (so far, only a fantasy). There is a blue moth on the lady's left leg, a yellow bird on her right hand and a pink moth above. She stares wide-eyed, drugged or dreamy.

Here is another example, certainly the showiest on view. Overgrown is a female figure on the wall. Above her impassive face is a gigantic Marie-Antoinettescale hairdo consisting of branches on which birds perch. There are leaves outlined in green on her skin and three-dimensional leaves, a bunny and flowers on her skirt. An owl sits on her left wrist and the flower she holds in her right hand has a face at centre, more stylised than her own.

Another: Submission consists of a male figure in striped pants kneeling on an iron table. On its stretchers are decorative heads with spiky black hair that is the inverse of the shaggy mane of the limp female cloth-and-clay doll that he holds in both arms, like a dead body or a sacrificial offering. The male has a deer head with (real?) antlers; there is a hole more or less where his heart would be (for access?) and tattoos or relief picture-stories embellish his bare torso. Her ceramic skin is pasty white; his is tan and crusty.

And one more: Wildflower is an arching tower of diminishing-size heart-shaped leaves and heads bearing flower-crowns. The asparagus-like stalk terminates in a 'dripped' pink-skinned female figure in a skirt, a ballerina-like or princess-like figure dangling her tiny pointed feet.

So does all this mean something? Some desire to connect humanity to the rest of nature seems most likely, but Ruttenberg seems to hedge her bets by making the figures unnatural in proportion and in surface. Although often the skin has a faintly salted sheen, which other artists have used to create a seductive flesh, here it made me think of suppurating decay. The garments are restrictive and elaborate, again speaking more of artifice than of any blending into nature. The natural features seem a burden as they appear in relief upon or growing from the bodies. The branch-hair might be associated with the Greek myth of Daphne turning into a laurel tree and recall Bernini's famous sculpture depicting that transformation, but Ruttenberg's scenes are characterised by rigidity and brittleness and her surfaces, when not simply depictive, are more often repellent than seductive.

Occasionally the works are amusing and sprite-like and, always, they call for close attention and hold the interest of the viewer. For one of the show's catalogue essayists, Frederique Joseph-Lowery, the works fertilely generate metaphors of gender identity and suggest stories that "begin where love ends". Essayist Chinnie Ding, on the other hand, writes "The flux between self-possession and attachment, plenitude and encumbrances--variously brought on by solitude as much as by companionship--preoccupy [Ruttenberg's] work to affecting results." What is most striking to me is the complexity of the set-ups and yet their ambiguity or incongruity. The artist is quoted as saying her work expresses "inner landscapes" and her personal life involves a commitment to animals, but whatever Kathy Ruttenberg means by these works, it does not seem like good news. The transformations are more often bloody than transcendent. These are unquestionably carefully developed and provocative works. Their strength is in the abundance of ideas they can suggest. But if you want a clear social or moral message you will have to invent it yourself.

A Review by Janet Koplos

Janet Koplos, a former senior editor at Art in America magazine and guest editor at American Craft magazine, is the co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010, University of North Carolina Press).
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Author:Koplos, Janet
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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