When your painting studio is set adrift on the open sea, things can get a little messy. Philadelphia-based painter Rebecca Rutstein spent her last three artist residencies in close quarters with oceanographic cartographers, examining never-before-seen images of the ocean floor and translating what she learned into undulating, semi-abstract paintings. She grew accustomed to the constant motion of the boat and its unpredictable effect on her brushstrokes.
In Fault Lines, her first-ever solo exhibition in New Mexico, Rutstein returns to dry land. Using the sunburnt palette of the high desert, the artist turns her attention to seismic events that occur deep in the Earth’s crust—and employs some tricks she learned at sea to imbue her compositions with dynamic motion. Fault Lines opens at form & concept on Friday, June 30, 5-7 pm, and runs through August 12, 2017. Read our interview with Rutstein below, and make sure to RSVP for the opening on Facebook.
Describe your new body of work, and tell us about its beginnings.
So, this body of work is coming full circle from the artist residencies that I’ve just completed at sea. I’m returning to some of the themes in my work that I’ve been exploring over the last several years. The paintings explore mapping and geology in less specific ways than while I was at sea, when I had live data coming in. These are getting back to more abstract themes that I’ve been exploring.
Which were the first paintings in the series?
I started off working on a lot of 36-inch square paintings where I’ve been exploring a lot of these ideas, and now I’m moving into 60-by-90 inch paintings as well. In some of the paintings I’m exploring wire frame mapping, which features these tetrahedral forms.
I’m really interested in this idea of fractal geometry. It’s been a big theme in my work, this idea that patterns repeat themselves in infinite scales. When you’re looking at one of the paintings, you’re not sure if you’re looking at something through the lens of a microscope or a satellite image of, say, the planet’s surface.
How did you choose the palette for these works?
Color has always been the intuitive part of my process. I’ve always thought in color. Back in grad school, that was always the strength of my paintings. The color I choose is very emotionally driven and very intuitive. In this particular body of work I’m actually thinking about some of the colors that appear in the landscape of New Mexico. Some of the oranges and pinks. I’m really not referencing New Mexican geology specifically, though.
It’s interesting, because you’re moving from residencies at sea to the high desert. Although, New Mexico is a prehistoric ocean floor, so maybe they’re not as separate as we think.
That brings me back to my initial interest in geology, which was back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell. The finger lakes region of Upstate New York, where Cornell is located, is absolutely stunning. It’s this dramatic display of waterfalls and gorges, where streams have been eroding monumental layers of shale to reach these finger lakes. The finger lakes are long, deep lakes that were gouged out by glaciers about 10,000 years ago. They offer this incredible view of geology at work.
At Cornell, I took a geology class for non-science majors. It was informally called Rocks for Jocks, and each class we’d go to a state park nearby to learn about the geology firsthand. You just reminded me when you were talking about New Mexico being underneath a sea, because this whole area had also been covered by an inland sea about 400 million years ago. We would go and look at these rocks, and we could see ripples and shell fossils. I would stand up on these cliffs, and imagine the whole area being submerged by the sea.
Is that when geologic concepts entered into your artwork?
Not quite. My undergraduate work was mostly figurative, and my early work in grad school at University of Pennsylvania was an exploration of abstract expressionism. I made large-scale paintings in oil, which were very much about expressive mark-making. Occasionally, I would anchor the paintings with some linear, mystical elements, but everything was done very expressively.
Around the year 2000, I felt like the paintings needed more structure. At the same time, I was going through some difficult, personal relationship stuff. That’s when I started leafing through my old geology textbooks. All of a sudden, these plate tectonic diagrams started to really resonate with me.
They spoke to me as a metaphor for my own interpersonal relationships. Every time I would look at these plates colliding and separating, I thought about the shifts and friction and tension and collision and separation and upheaval I was experiencing in my own life. I started to recognize these forces under the surface of my own daily life.
I decided on a whim to start putting these diagrams into my paintings, to see what would happen.
And what happened?
All of a sudden, my paintings had meaning for me beyond self-expressive mark-making. It became very clear to me that the paintings had much more meaning when I started to explore this metaphor of tectonic forces. From there, I wanted to pursue opportunities to learn about geology in different regions.
I started applying for residencies in places that I thought would be interesting from a geological perspective. My first residency was in the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Canada. I wanted to learn how the Canadian Rockies formed, so I met with people in the field and did observations, and then incorporated the narrative into a whole body of work.
How did you end up on your Hawaiian residency?
Well, I went back to Canada the following summer. A couple of years later, I wanted to explore another area. I ended up going to Hawaii to study the Kilauea volcano, which is one of the most fascinating active volcanoes on the planet. I took helicopter rides over the volcanic activity, and caved through lava tubes. I really allowed myself to experience the geography firsthand. Then I told a story through my paintings.
The show I did after my Hawaii trip was called Ebb and Flow, which could be read in multiple ways—kind of like the diagrams from my geology textbooks. The show from the Canadian Rockies series was called Love and Subduction. Later, after my Iceland residency, I did a show called Deep Rift. The stories I told about geology were always interwoven with my own personal psychology.
When you were in Hawaii, did you realize you wanted to explore the ocean?
That was one of the first moments when I became really curious about what was underneath the surface of the ocean. It started off with ocean floor maps that I discovered during the residency. Then, my mom sent me an article in the mail that happened to be Marie Tharpe’s obituary.
Marie Tharp was this amazing woman. She was and under-recognized oceanographer who spent decades through the 1940’s, 50s, and 60s working at Columbia recording single echo soundings that were taken from ships and plotting them into these two dimensional profiles to figure out what the depths of the ocean were, and what the ocean floor looked like.
She would take these 2D profiles that were maybe a hundred miles apart and then interpolate all the spaces in between and create three-dimensional drawings of the ocean floor, replete with canyons and mountains and volcanoes. The drawings were incredibly detailed.
Did Marie Tharp find her way into your work?
I wanted to create an homage to her. I discovered that all of Marie Tharp’s maps and drawings had been donated to the Library of Congress in DC. I went down there and pored through these drawings and maps, and was blown away. When I got the opportunity to create a 60-foot installation at the Philadelphia Airport, I did a multi-panel installation for her.
Speaking of deep sea exploration, when did your first residency at sea come about?
Even before I went to sea, I had been working on these underwater themes for several years. I moved away from that for a while after my Iceland residency, and then I had the opportunity to go to sea. It was a voyage from the Galapagos Islands to California. The scientists were going to mapping out never-before-seen ocean floor topography in high resolution.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it also created a host of challenges. It was definitely uncharted territory for me, no pun intended. I was used to working on a big scale in my studio, and I had to figure out the logistics of paintings on a ship. I had to get all my supplies there and anticipate what I would need in terms of paint and canvas.
So you were already in a pretty confined space, and then there was the motion of the ocean.
Yes, painting on a moving vessel was its own challenge. The ship was moving particularly hard because we were trailing a hurricane in the Pacific. There was a lot of rocking going on, and at first I was trying to control what I was doing. Eventually, I decided to just go with the flow of the ship.
I started pouring paint onto the canvas, and allowing the rocking movements of the ship to disperse the paint. Then I’d superimpose these sonar maps that we were collecting on top of these very process-oriented fields of color.
Was it liberating to unleash like that? In other ways, your works are so precise.
That’s really what I’m after, that polarity. It’s this idea that I’m not controlling the way the paint is going to arrive on the canvas. Even in these really organic pours, there’s this idea of fractal geometry. I love that there’s a process-oriented element, and then I’m going back in to work with more intentional and purposeful graphic forms. They coexist on the same canvas.
Does that idea of the connection to your emotional landscape still resonate in your current work, or has it shifted away as you’ve explored all these different things?
It is still there. It happens sometimes in the way I title my work. Personally, my life feels a little more stable now. I think it’s there, but it’s more buried than it used to be.
In my paintings, I’m exploring formal abstract ideas, so it also harkens back to the abstract expressive painting that I was doing 20 years ago.
In your experience working with scientists and studying science, what are you bringing to the table as an artist that’s unique or important?
Here’s a beautiful analogy from Robert Ballard, who is very well-known in the ocean exploration world. His ship, the Nautilus, is the one that I sailed on in the Galapagos. We were interviewed for NPR, and he was talking about what the artist brings to the table. He said that ocean exploration is like being on the edge of the Grand Canyon in the dark, and the artist turns the light on.
So, the artist visualizes and translates boring data into something potentially beautiful or impactful that a larger audience can appreciate. An artist is going to broaden the awareness of these important issues. That idea of communicating these ideas to a larger public is really critical, and why scientists are looking t work with artists. There’s a big interest in this cross-disciplinary exploration.
Rebecca Rutstein: Fault Lines opens on Friday, June 30, 5-7 pm. Click here to learn more about the show, and make sure to RSVP on Facebook. Fault Lines opens concurrently with another painting exhibition, Jared Weiss: He’s Either Dead Or It Was His Birthday. Click here to read our blog preview of Weiss’s show.