Saturday, March 12th, 2011

A Play of Landscape and Abstraction: Brian Rutenberg at Forum

Brian Rutenberg: Low Dense at Forum Gallery

January 13 to February 19, 2011
730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street
New York City, (212) 355-4545

Brian Rutenberg, French Landscape, 2010. Oil on linen, 48 x 158 inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery
Brian Rutenberg, French Landscape, 2010. Oil on linen, 48 x 158 inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery

The central theme of Brian Rutenberg’s paintings originated from his exploration of the South Carolina lowlands where he grew up. He has discussed its dreamlike power on his senses:  the merging of evanescent light and water and the pungent, tactile humidity that has a peculiar organic density.  In early works he painted tall rows of tree trunks and branches that expressively fade in and out of foggy atmosphere. In subsequent paintings a mysterious valley loomed abstractly in the center of the painting, emitting a moody, primordial light. The central “void” was often surrounded by the ghostly vestiges of trees symbolized as vertical hash marks or abstractly twisted branches. His palette got brighter as shapes expanded and contracted in dynamic play to the edges of his paintings, and as he laid down paint in thick swatches slathered on top of each other.  Heavily glazed areas in the center of his canvases took on a glowing viscosity. The artist has often mentioned his love of the Luminist American painting tradition of the 1850’s to 1870’s, particularly the work of Martin Johnson Heade who endowed landscape with a profound sense of melancholy and wonder.  Rutenberg’s art ever strives to straddle the divide between moody reminiscence of nature and a gradually evolving transformation of it into a Modernist-inspired vision.

Brian Rutenberg, Low Dense, 2010. Oil on linen, 63 x 158 inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery
Brian Rutenberg, Low Dense, 2010. Oil on linen, 63 x 158 inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery

His current exhibit at the Forum Gallery demonstrates a play of landscape and abstraction with renewed intensity, intermingling an ever-increasing assertion of boldly colored rectangular and triangular forms with his familiar compositional motifs. In one of the largest horizontal paintings, Low Dense (2010), willowy purple hash marks lay on top of a central brown and ocher space, laying out a staccato grid of lines that are almost jazzy in their spontaneity. On either side bright blocks of green, red, blue and purple burst into a crescendo of rhythmic improvisation, gradually fading into deep greens and navy blues towards the edges. His surfaces, with their brilliant blocks of color, bring to mind the high-keyed push-pull planes of Hans Hoffman. Slabs of paint, applied with a palette knife, generate a feeling of geological pressure that is broken up by more delicate painterly moments – a thin glaze or chance dripping – that break up the intensity of the surface and adds poetic variety and subtlety. Massed rectangles and triangles, compressed against each other and leaning on the edges of the canvas, balance relative gravities and weights of color, size and density. Energies at the edges provide subtle visual counterbalances while also guiding the eye across the span of the canvas with directional intent. It seems as though the artist’s inner vision of nature has taken a decisive abstract “Symbolist” turn, enhancing the mysterious luminosity of his previous work.

Rutenberg’s gradual transformation of nature into abstraction is an artistic tradition that has deep historical roots. J. M. W. Turner painted many of his seascapes with a romantic expressiveness that brought them close to the point of pure abstraction.  Claude Monet’s water lilies were the springboard that launched his brush into paroxysms of abstract color and gesture. However Rutenberg’s work has deeper ties to American forerunners of Abstract Expressionism like Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield. Like them he seeks a subconscious and spiritual expression of nature in the American landscape through the discovery of abstract motifs and expressionism. Rutenberg’s unceasing play with color, value and painterly texture plants new possibilities within the expanding fields of his canvases.

Diane Thodos is and artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. . She was the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2002. She has exhibited at the Kouros Gallery in New York City in 2011 and is represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.

Brian Rutenberg, Low Light, 2010. Oil on linen, 50 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery
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