In the center of David Ruhlman’s UMOCA exhibition, standing like an altar, there is an ancient card table. The black material of the table is rubbed off around the edges, with the old plywood substructure showing through at the corners and in patches across the surface. Painted across all this is a large ram’s head. Curling horns, tender little mouth, thick nappy wool, black eyes staring at you. The piece is called “The Ram.” The same ram is repeated in several of the other pieces in the show. “The ram, entity, in my mind was this, I wouldn’t say deity, but this thing that was in charge of the event,” David Ruhlman tells me as we stand amongst his paintings. By “event” he means apocalypse, and the paintings in the show, A History of the Hidden World, feature several apocalypses, as well as the beginning of the world, some creative mis-starts in the early world, and an ode to Edvard Munch, among other things.
Filled with Ruhlman’s work, UMOCA’S Locals Only gallery takes on an almost strange sacred feeling; as if it is filled with holy iconography from a slightly different—weirder—culture in a slightly different time. The canon of figures, creatures, and objects Ruhlman uses repeat, reverse, and then show up again in other paintings, creating the feeling of a distinct mythic world. In addition to the ram’s heads, there are women in orange dresses, viscera, birds, children, upside-down birds, women in blue dresses, pea-pods, finless fish, the crucified Jesus with a stag’s head, two-headed turtles, conjoined twins, a chair, upside-down crucified Jesus with a child’s body for a head, conjoined rabbits, three-legged foxes. Birds. And the reverse of all that.
The paintings are mainly gouache on panel, though the panel is often covered in other material: sometimes old book pages, brown bag, or newspaper that is then given multiple washes of paint. The painted images are laid out more like diagrams than landscapes or portraits, with a flatness that is a satisfying contrast against the materiality of the background texture. The diagrams have a cryptic, somewhat familiar but also opaque sort of feeling, as if you should be able to read them, but just can’t quite. As if they were a visual form of writing— or as if they were formally structured poems written in a new form of hieroglyphs. Or hieroglyphic word puzzles. And while it’s not at all necessary to understand the stories behind the works to enjoy them, it turns out that it’s great fun to have their creator explain them to you.
To explain “The Ram,” and what the symbol of the ram means in his work, Ruhlman leads me to another painting on the wall to the right called “The World is a Secret Knot.” It’s the piece in which the ram first appears in in David’s work, suddenly, as the harbinger of the apocalypse.
“So I was reading a book on Artaud, Antonin Artaud,” Ruhlman says. “Who who was a French playwright, slash actor, slash madman, slash artist. Really interesting guy,” he says, “who was one of the first westerners who went to Mexico to do, well, drugs. Very hallucinogenic drugs.” That was in the 1930s. “And while he was down there,” Ruhlman continues, “he had this vision, and he prophesied that the world would come to an end on November 7, 1937.”
Then one day as David was walking through Salt Lake with the biography fresh in his mind, he imagined what it would look like to see Artaud’s 1937 apocalypse unfold. “It would be this kind of flash,” Ruhlman says. “This opening up in history from the very beginning to the very end.” And in Ruhlman’s vision of Artaud’s vision, there’s a ram there, in the sky, overseeing the whole ordeal. “The ram’s kind of the organizer, or the entity that would summon everything.” Summon the end, but the beginning as well. That flash became the outline for “The World is a Secret Knot.” In addition to the ram, Ruhlman has painted a version of Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve as symbols of the beginning of history. “And you have war,” Ruhlman says, pointing at a WW1 fighter plane, “and death and birth,” pointing at legs spilling viscera, and then a fetus suspended below a tree trunk, “and the skyline here.” The skyline is a sweet, stylized, vaguely Scandinavian, almost fairytale looking village.
In the initial flash in which he envisioned the piece, he knew there would be the ram, and the row of houses making up the skyline underneath. “A lot of times, how I work, is I’ll kind of see it,” Ruhlman says. The elements of the piece that he didn’t see in the initial vision, he discovered as he went along, adding images that felt right to flesh out the narrative of the piece.
While “The Earth is a Secret Knot” is the first place the ram appeared, and represents a universal sort of apocalypse, one that’s the end of history, in other pieces the ram presides over more personal apocalypses. “When I say apocalypse,” David says, “I don’t mean like ‘apocalypse.’” He says that second “apocalypse” in a gloomy, whiney voice, “but this ending, or this transformation.”
Ruhlman has a quiet, thoughtful demeanor. He is slim, a runner, over six feet tall, with large blue eyes. He is sensitive and inward but with a sharp, unexpected wit. His house is filled with books on artists. His house is also filled with his art: he’s a steady and prolific artist. He is deeply serious about art, and there is a feeling about him as if he comes from a slightly different world. Or, rather, that he is a very active member of a parallel culture where the forgotten geniuses and artists are superstars, and the forgotten or unnoticed subcultures of this and other eras are the mainstream. Talking with him, I get the feeling that his sense of wonder is very much intact. Wonder, as well as a somewhat twisted sense of delight in the world. But twisted in a darling kind of way. Like, at one point in our conversation, as he’s describing the ho-hum nature of one of his paintings he says, “there’s nothing really that odd about it. It’s pretty straight up: a body, a tree, you know, little innards, and things like that.”
After “The Earth is a Secret Knot” Ruhlman leads me to another piece in the show, an earlier one—“The Left Hand of Edvard Munch is the Right Hand of God”—which was inspired by a biography of Munch. “It just hit a nerve for me,” he says. He was drawn to Munch’s obsessions with sex, death, and religion. “I wanted to do kind of an ode to him… and this is somewhat him, and somewhat me.” The piece uses images from the Ruhlman alphabet, but then incorporates images from Munch’s life, as well.
David tells me the Munch piece was his “first mirroring kind of thing.” Which has since become an important part of his work. “I was always interested in anagrams,” Ruhlman says. So the puzzle he gave himself for the Munch painting was to create some preliminary images and then photocopy them. “Then,” he continues, “I cut out all the images, and used the same images, but put them in a different way, and so the meaning would then change because of the placement.” For example: “you would have this Christ image, with this naked woman coming out of his head – which is strange,” he admits, laughing. “Or the Christ with the stag head would now be with her.” And listening to him talk about making the work, there is that familiar giddy absorption of play. He says that the arrangement of the work all goes back to play, and goes back to his very early love of surrealists, who were very much about play. He loved Salvador Dali when he was 13, and still he cites Max Ernst a major influence. “And the surrealists did a lot of the word games,” he says, “like the exquisite corpses, and scrambling of—or just re-ordering of—placement or of narrative.”
The early love of Dali and the surrealists was a part of a larger love of odd cultural artifacts that arose out of a close creative collaboration/friendship/competition David had with his younger brother, Mathieu Ruhlman. There were five kids, total, in their family, with David squarely in the middle. They moved around a lot. David was born in Germany, but by the time he was 17 he’d lived in Maryland, Colorado—twice, Kansas—twice, Pennsylvania—twice, California, then Texas for awhile, and finally Utah. His dad was in the army.
“We were a big influence on each other,” David says of his brother (who is now a composer). They used to bring each other odd things they’d find: album covers, songs, and films. The more peculiar the better. Through all those different states and schools, the two of them would hole up in whatever house they were living in at the time, “listening to crazy music, and doing strange paintings and drawings,” he says. David says there was a kind of one-upmanship with finding things that would blow the other’s mind: the warts of pop culture, and alternate branches and earlier dead-ends of cultural evolution.
Later, as art became a serious pursuit, he found kindred spirits in artists who had come before. He has a mutable trinity of favorites who he has studied deeply and who inspire his own practice. All three of them, he says, have a little bit of the dark humor he likes, as well as an interest in color and play. “I would say Jean Dubuffet, for me is probably the number one, where he had a lot of styles, and materiality,” Ruhlman says. And then there’s Paul Klee, for the color and play, and also the versatility of his work. The third, it’s hard to tell, is either Wallace Berman, Joseph Beuys, or Dieter Roth. Max Ernst is important, but is more like the grandfather of his influences, rather than part of the current trinity. As Ruhlman talks about his favorite artists, he speaks faster, almost getting a little breathless. He speaks of assemblage, activating materials, play, adventure, and materiality of the work.
There’s a quote by Jean Dubuffet that David Ruhlman particularly loves. “It’s a little bit of a mis-translation,” he says, but it goes: “’Art should frighten you a little, and make you laugh a little. Anything but bore you. Art has no right to be boring.’ I would hope that you would not be bored by it,” Ruhlman says, “and make your own narrative, or your own story.”
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.