John Ruppert, a sculptor who uses earthly materials and forms, didn't really know what he would be doing when he went to Iceland for a residency in Reykjavik last summer. "I just knew I was going to go and collect. Camera, video, and sound," he says. "I knew it was going to be exciting because of my interest in the volcanic nature of casting."
He spent a couple weeks thinking about "how the landscape is always in flux and it's building and breaking down, and earthquakes and volcanoes and glaciers and all this stuff going on," he says. The result, The Iceland Project, a series of photographs on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery though Dec. 14, is profoundly sculptural.
As a child, Ruppert spent time in Jordan, where he was struck by the idea of "the architecture being made from the land and then nature taking it back." Later he began to work as a jeweler but noticed that all his jewelry resembled sculptures, so he began to consciously work in a way that hearkened back to his childhood realization and highlighted the ways that the natural and the industrial both oppose each other as well as fit together. Ruppert strives to capture the "thingness" in every natural subject he tackles.
For instance, his Lightning Strike series casts lightning-struck trees that Ruppert has collected from all over the U.S. He first saw one of these shards on a walk through the woods of Maine in the '80s. He described it as "such a shard of energy" that he sought to find the pine tree it came from. He explains how the moisture in the trees causes them to explode, and depending on kind of tree that it is, that determines the kind of splinter that results, due to growth pattern of the tree. The sculptures do have an electricity to them, their shape almost mimicking the lightning that hit them. He casts them in iron, aluminum, bronze, steel, and copper, among other metals. In his Druid Hill studio, Ruppert points out a massive shelf full of such shards and a couple more waiting to be shipped off to Miami Basel this year.
His later chain-link work shifted away from the tree-based pieces, moving closer to industry while continuing to examine the laws of nature. A massive orb of chain-link fencing rests in the middle of the industrial studio floor, taller than Ruppert when he stands next to it. It's not shaped laboriously by hand, but formed by gravity. "There's a tension element where it pulls on a cylinder and it pushes the energy out and creates this exostructure kind of thing, like a balloon," he says. He has several different shapes he's formed, all done by experimenting and anticipating what will happen (his 2011 show The Nature of Things featured a film of a koi fish swimming across one of the grids and a cast tree, bringing in the filmic element). Ruppert started with these in the mid-'90s, he says, at about the same time he got the tremendous studio. "I've been growing into it," he says. He doesn't have to limit his work by size, since the space is massive. "But the studio has really helped me make work, just conceptually. Even though the work isn't 54 feet tall, there's just that conceptual freedom."
His Pumpkin series is a shift back to forms inspired directly by natural ones. He points them out, sitting on a shelf 30 feet up. They're castings of a 700-pound pumpkin that he got from a vegetable-growing contest several years ago. The iron one on the floor next to him is hefty, but nothing compared to the 1,725-pound monster he's waiting to cast. These sculptures are similar to the boulder castings he's been working on for years, in which he displays the real rock next to the casting. He calls them echo pieces. "I have them do a comparison, so when you're looking at them, you question what's real and what's not. Because, the way I cast, I try to reveal the nature in industry."
With his Iceland work, Ruppert pushed this collision of nature and technology in a new direction. He took multiple images of each site he selected and composited them digitally. "It wasn't like taking a panoramic picture," he says. "It was more like capturing the thingness." The pieces are in a fluctuating state, some areas in focus, some not, with different focal points jostling together throughout. Ruppert heightened the sense of flux by allowing a computer program to decide where to stitch the images together, taking some of the choice out of the artist's hands. One such piece, "Hekla," is a 9-foot-long composite of a mountain shrouded in mist. With the pieces that show sky, Ruppert wanted to flatten them and make them all one color. He used a color-picking tool to choose a shade found in the landscape, and let the program figure out what constituted sky. In "Hekla," the program got a little confused as to what was sky and what was mist so that the border between the two is jagged and faltering. In typical fashion, Ruppert embraced this confusion of boundaries.
*The print version of this story mistakenly attirbutes it to Baynard Woods.