Ruppert welds the natural to the man-made world Review: The University of Maryland sculptor and teacher establishes a national presence on the union of art and artifice.

March 27, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

John Ruppert's pumpkins sit there on the floor of the Grimaldis Gallery in all their saggy dignity -- huge vegetable forms that suggest living, rotting, churning masses of decomposition.

Ruppert has made his pumpkins so well that they retain their pumpkinness even though you know they're made of aluminum; even though you see the weld marks of the industrial process that created them.

That's the whole point, according to the artist: The natural world and the man-made or industrial world have much in common and, ideally at least, should coexist in harmony.

"To me it's a very fundamental kind of marriage of man and nature," Ruppert says. "It's a very basic kind of concept, an age-old relationship. I try to contextualize the two, and some kind of form evolves from that."

Now 45, Ruppert is an artist whose work has been evolving for more than 20 years. A native of Winchester, Mass., he holds art degrees from Miami University in Ohio and Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He worked in Laramie, Wyo., and St. Louis before coming to Baltimore in 1987 to teach art at the University of Maryland.

For the past 10 years, Ruppert has been showing his sculpture to local praise and has become one of the more significant artists on the regional scene. Recently, however, his work has moved into a more national phase.

Two Washington-area shows in 1994 led to a retrospective last year at the Chicago Cultural Center, which subsequently traveled to Virginia Beach and Cleveland. A smaller version of the show, called "Natural Forces/Urban Context," is on view at Grimaldis through Saturday.

Ruppert's work has always been both substantial and refreshing in its optimism. Many bemoan the ill effects of the industrial age on the environment. Ruppert is perfectly aware of industry's depredations, but his work, by marrying elements of the natural and industrial worlds in thoughtful ways, argues that such a union might be possible on a larger scale.

Ruppert works in series, of which the pumpkins are one of the latest. His lightning strike series depicts parts of trees -- cast in metal -- hit by lightning. The works reflect the fire of nature in the blasted form and the fire of man that melted the metal to be poured into the mold.

In his rock series, Ruppert builds a mold around a rock and casts the rock's form in any of various metals -- iron, steel, bronze, aluminum. Ultimately, the real rock and the man-made replicas are shown together as a work of art.

With the pumpkins, Ruppert's work has became, if not exactly lighthearted, less totally serious. In their oversized fleshiness, the pumpkins are fun and almost sexy.

Ruppert traces his fascination with the connection between nature and artifice to his childhood. He remembers traveling to archaeological sites in the Middle East with his family when he was only 12. "That was my first exposure to some kind of human decision-making being reclaimed by the environment," he says. "There were these ruins made of the material of the landscape in a way that you knew there was human intervention -- hewn rock made into rectangles for architecture. And then reclaimed."

In our much younger society, these effects are less evident in an archaeological sense. But Ruppert sees them geologically, in Western canyons and similar formations whose layers clearly speak of the ages it took to form them.

"I taught in Wyoming a couple of summers and I love the West. You can see into the earth, and the evidence of how it was made in the layers that were carved away in a continuous process. It reminds us of how insignificant we are."

Lanky, soft-spoken and low-key, he appears so relaxed that you wouldn't suspect he balances at least five roles: sculptor; associate professor of art (University of Maryland, College Park); owner and manager of a former trolley barn where he has his own studio and rents out space; husband; father of two daughters.

He estimates that over the years he has sold about 50 of his sculptures and the drawings that result from them, and the proceeds go back into his work. "I keep a certain account toward the art, so it doesn't go into the mortgage or anything else," he says. "In effect, I support the habit."

He shares his cavernous studio space with his unsold works. "I'm one of my biggest collectors," he says with a smile. Lying around are examples of a recent series on fences that didn't involve molding, firing, melting or casting. He simply forms sections of chain link fence into graceful shapes that suggest vessels or human motion. "Chamber," when upright, resembles a classic vase form. In "Carmen," a length of fence swirls around a pole like a cape swung by a toreador. "Diva," now on view at Grimaldis, looks like the skirt of a woman in mid-twirl.

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