David Ruhlman . . . from page 1
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.”
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Sky and Bloom Revealing
Portia Snow and Regina Stenberg at Evolutionary Healthcare
Walking into the current exhibit at Evolutionary Healthcare, I was struck by the contrast of a large-scale black and white drawing against a Day-Glo Orange wall — a color that signals Warning/Caution and commands passer-bys to pay attention. Regina Stenberg’s drawing of clouds on a truly cloudless day was perfectly installed (crooked title cards notwithstanding) to the right of the glass door entrance into what is a doctor’s office. This soft powdered graphite drawing took the edge off the day and made the space seem warm and inviting. The title, “ The Allure of the Rule,” gave me hope that I was in for a thoughtful art experience despite the pristine office-waiting-room decor.
The powdered graphite paintings by Stenberg are paired with photography by Portia Snow. The name Portia Snow alone incites a feeling of purity, freshness and white. The concepts behind Snow’s photographs deliver on this account, though her photographs are tricky in that they are printed, with the use of a process called “antiquing,” in a manner that implies time and aging. Even though the photographs were printed in 2013, they look like they could have been made in the 1940’s. They are nostalgic via the use of Photoshop. The photos seem to reference a time when the photographer was traveling the world and seeking out new experiences with fresh eyes. Perhaps Snow went to an Italian Masquerade — implied by the photograph of a young man in a bird mask. But what makes this photo intriguing is that the bird-masked man is dancing on a white salt lake. In reality, the salt lake is anything but fresh; however, this young man in a bird mask makes me believe that perhaps the whiteness of the salt will transport me back to my more innocent childish days — when these types of costumes on twenty-something adults were slightly intimidating. Further on, Snow’s photographs of paeonias indicate spring, suggesting hope and optimism for the future. The series of white flower photographs tucked away in the back of the offices indicate time via the installation. Unlike the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, Snow’s giclee photographs are cropped in such a way that they imply there is more to see beyond the edges of the photographs. This series of white paeonia plants represents a possible opening or revealing, the artist coyly keeping from us the entire revealing of the spring bloom.
In the October 2010 edition of 15 Bytes, on the occasion of her exhibit of drawings at Finch Lane Gallery, Stenberg talked to Carol Fulton about her process of applying powdered graphite to the vertical watercolor paper with terry cloth to create the softness depicted in her sky drawings. Her new drawings on display at Evolutionary Healthcare and are dated 2013 and bring to mind quite a few references due to their abstract nature. Initially they remind me of an inked plate for a collagraph print, where strings are being used as a plate making material prior to printing. The white lines appear to loop and curve through the gray drawing surface as if they were trying to break through a smoggy day. The drawings create very dynamic compositions that exist solidly in and of themselves. Upon further inspection, the titles (“White Bloom - 2013” for instance) attempt to connect the viewer to a context, perhaps also to the paeonia photographs by Snow. After reading the title, my imagination shifts downward and I feel as though I am looking into water, at light trails created by tadpoles. Historically, the drawings take me back to 1949 and the light drawings created by Pablo Picasso, artwork that inspired the drip/ action paintings by Jackson Pollock
While wandering through the exhibition I couldn’t help but think about contemporary artists working in veins similar to Stenberg and Snow. I think of Vija Celmins and her lighthearted but heavily detailed oil paintings and mezzotints of the sky and the water. Portia Snow’s flower photographs seem to be along a similar vein as the multi-media pieces called “Liminality” created by Vera Sprunt. I left the gallery feeling nostalgic and calm. I also felt confident that I am in good hands as far as technical skills are concerned. Snow and Stenberg make a visit to the doctor’s office a pleasant one. Even though I didn’t make an appointment — perhaps meditating on the artwork would calm my mind enough and perhaps even give me something to concentrate on while I heal my mind in conjunction with my body.