Ideas

Rebecca Rutstein’s Large-Scale Geometric Abstractions Offer Natural Perspective

Posted by: Andrea Hammer

When in the presence of Rebecca Rutstein’s large-scale geometric installations, the mind reels. Her interdisciplinary geometric abstractions integrate scientific data and maps with the lacy, gossamer touch of a visionary artist. Vibrant colors fill the eye while a sense of proportion from the natural world literally catches the breath.

Drawing on geological inspiration, Rutstein has been an artist in residence in Iceland, Hawaii, the Canadian Rockies and Vermont. Most recently, she was on board scientific research vessels from the Galápagos Islands to Southern California and from Vietnam to Guam.

“Any time I have done an artist residency, my work has changed, and I have grown exponentially as an artist. Having uninterrupted time to create is a priceless experience. As a wife, mother of two and owner of a small design business, it is a welcome change to have my artistic pursuits be my focus for a little while,” she says.

“One of my first residencies in the Canadian Rockies shifted my practice quite a bit. Previously, I had worked in oils. In dealing with the logistics of shipping wet canvases home, I decided to switch to acrylics, and I’ve never turned back. Also taking advantage of the residency’s print-making studio, I started working with silk screens in my paintings. With every residency, my work is affected by the location, the light, the colors and the landscape of that region. I have chosen locations that are geologically dynamic, and I create work that is a direct or indirect response to that place.”

The artist adds that, from a scientific standpoint, both artist-at-sea residencies yielded new discoveries because “the ocean is such an untapped area of exploration. Only 5% to 10% of the ocean floor has been mapped in high resolution, so during our expeditions, we uncovered many topographic features previously undetected, such as extinct volcanoes, submarine canyons and seamounts.”

On her trip from Vietnam to Guam in 2016, Rutstein recalls mapping over an area thought to have been the place where the SS Indianapolis may have sunk. This U.S. war ship had been lost at sea for the last 73 years. Through the data collected, a team went back out in 2017 with autonomous underwater vehicles to explore the area in question in more detail. The ship was just located a few weeks ago.

“On a personal and creative level, I discovered a lot about how I can stretch myself out of my comfort zone. Collaborating with scientists, creating a studio and working in the wet lab of the ship, embracing the rocking motion of the vessel into my artistic process, finding my place within the established rhythms of ship life, feeling the freedom of the open sea and sky, all culminated in a learning and growing experience,” she says.

The artist’s fascination with plate tectonics and topographic maps began when she was exposed to the “impressive” geology of New York’s Finger Lake region.

“Seeing and learning about glacial, erosive and other forces at work, firsthand, had a big impact on me,” she says. After working several years in Philadelphia, “I saw a pathway to incorporate geologic themes into my paintings.”

Over the years, Rutstein has also researched, explored and created art in the American Rockies (Colorado), Machu Picchu (Peru) and Tahiti.

“Forces underneath the surface that drive tectonic shifts speaks to me as a metaphor for my own interpersonal relationships–the shifts, friction, tension, collision, separation, erosion and upheaval that can be experienced at different times with different people in my life,” she says.

For as long as Rutstein can remember, she has been interested in juxtapositions–micro and macro, graphic and atmospheric, organic and geometric, positive and negative, manual and mechanical, linear and solid.

“In particular, I was interested in the fractal geometry of nature, how patterns repeat themselves at infinite scales. I think my interest in this micro/macro scale shift originated through looking at Chinese and Japanese landscape painting. There was an ingenious use of fractal patterns deployed in these works. I became interested in making a painting where the viewer could get lost, not knowing whether they were looking at something through the lens of a microscope or from the viewpoint of a satellite looking down at landmasses,” she says.

“As my work progressed, I found that the micro/macro scale shift I was trying to achieve was hindered by the recognizable imagery I sometimes used in my paintings. That imagery would always be a point of reference, breaking the viewer’s experience of getting lost in the painting. In 2011, I made an 8′ x 10’ painting for a show, and in the process of making such a big work, I pared down the imagery. A wire-frame map, which I had often used as a layered element within a larger piece, became the subject of this new work. This struck a chord for me, and I have been exploring this trajectory ever since.”

Rutstein adds that Agnes Martin and Julie Mehretu have significantly impacted the development of her work.

“I recently saw a retrospective of Martin at the Guggenheim that blew me away. Her dedication to her craft, her commitment to her visual language and her passion for continuing to create well into her 90s is inspiring. My dream is to continue to evolve as an artist and make work for my entire life.” she says.

“The scale and breadth of Julie Mehretu’s work is humbling. I saw a recent N.Y. Times article about her working on a monumental commission (two 27×32’ canvases) for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her ability to draw you into her work and create an environment is something I am seeking to do in my own practice. I am interested in creating larger-scale installations as I evolve as an artist.”

In addition, Rutstein generally works on paintings or sculptures in series with an overarching theme in mind and designed for a specific site.

“While I may have a palette in mind and thoughts about the scale of my marks, I work in a very process-oriented way. It is not unusual for me to paint out a painting several times before I arrive at something I can live with. I never sketch before making a painting–the canvas is my “drawing board.”

Rutstein, who was a visiting artist last spring, will be speaking on a panel at Moore on October 14 for the 2017 Leadership Conference for Women in the Arts.

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