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.
“This body of work comes full circle, from the artist residencies that I’ve just completed at sea to the other geologic themes I’ve been exploring for much of my career,” says Rutstein. The artist grew up in Philadelphia, PA and got her BFA in painting at Cornell University. In her time at Cornell, she took a geology class for non-science majors and explored the Finger Lakes region of New York State. “The Finger Lakes offered this incredible view of geology at work,” says Rutstein. “The class had a big impact on me, because it was a method of learning by visually analyzing these massive formations.”
Several years later, after Rutstein completed her MFA at University of Pennsylvania, she flipped open one of her old geology textbooks and something clicked. She’d been creating process-oriented, abstract paintings, and the diagrams of seismic events in the book struck her as its own nonrepresentational language. “All of a sudden my paintings had meaning for me beyond self-expressive mark making,” Rutstein says. “I started overlaying these plate tectonic diagrams on top of my abstract marks.” Tectonic forces became metaphors for the shifts in her personal relationships, and she mounted solo exhibitions with titles such as Love and Subduction, Ebb & Flow and Deep Rift.
At artist residencies in Hawaii and Canadian Rockies, Rutstein continued her studies of geology and found new ways to translate scientific concepts into her work. She became fascinated with the work of Marie Tharp, a pioneering oceanographic cartographer who died in 2006. Rutstein’s studies of Tharp’s work, and her own artistic explorations of underwater terrain, inspired her to apply for an artist at sea residency. She sailed from the Galapagos Islands to San Diego as a Science Communication Fellow for the Ocean Exploration Trust in 2015, and embarked on two voyages with the Schmidt Institute in 2016.
“At first, I would try to tightly control my pigments, fighting the movement of the ship,” says Rutstein. “Then I started pouring the paints, and allowing the rocking movements of the ship to disperse it.” It was a breakthrough, and revived Rutstein’s interest in fractal geometry. “I’ve always had this interest in juxtaposition: micro and macro, graphic and atmospheric, organic and geometric,” the artist says. “These contrasting ideas really lend themselves to fractal geometry in nature, and how patterns repeat themselves on infinite scales.” In her work, Rutstein emphasizes this ambiguity of scale. Her forms could represent clouds, continental plates, mountain ranges, rocks, pebbles or grains of sand.
For her solo exhibition at form & concept, Rutstein has moved away from her studies of the ocean floor in a return to broader geologic explorations. However, she’s still incorporating paint pours into her work, and rocking her canvases back and forth as though she were at sea. “They’re very process-oriented, and then I’m going back in and working with more intentional and purposeful graphic forms,” she says. “I want those opposing forces to coexist on the same canvas.”