Mike Baur

at Sonia Zaks Gallery, through

June 25

John Ruppert: Natural Forces/Urban Context

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through June 30

By Fred Camper

Mike Baur’s 16 new sculptures at Sonia Zaks look like piles of junk at first, but soon one realizes the artist has fabricated almost everything. There are concrete objects no one would ever make out of concrete, and new-looking bolts fasten rusting metal plates. “They’re supposed to look like things that were dug up somewhere,” Baur says. “They’re about the people who made and left them.” He goes to some lengths to make these “archaeological artifacts” look as if he hasn’t cut, bent, and welded the parts himself. He puts the raw steel in bonfires to speed oxidation and to produce a variety of colors as chemicals from the wood are deposited on the metal. But though I enjoyed these works and appreciated their realistic look of rust and decay, I sometimes felt as if Baur hadn’t done quite enough, as if their unfinished, almost random look prevented them from really singing. But this is perhaps a necessary trade-off. If this exhibit is going to tell the tale of a past civilization, Baur can’t make his forms too perfect, too closed, or they’ll lose their allusions to ruin.

It’s not hard to see why Baur’s lost civilization failed: many of these pieces are amusingly nonfunctional. The large and imposing No Leeway on a Short Route looks as if it’s been ripped from a ship’s stern. A grid of concrete and metal angled slightly forward hints at a ship’s hull, creating a dynamic, almost aggressive presence that powerfully contrasts with the rusting metal and crumbling concrete. This assembly supports a huge concrete wedge that, because of the way it’s mounted, can only be a rudder. A concrete rudder? But then Shackled features concrete oars. Mounted in oarlocklike loops on the wall, they’re aligned a little too closely; one thinks of a slave galley. One oar’s shaft is gone, and on another large portions of the concrete have been eaten away.

Baur refers not only to ancient history but to our own more recent past. Of his many ship shapes he remarks that “most of us got here by boat.” And one inspiration for the series was the detritus from would-be immigrants’ flimsy boats washed up on Florida beaches a few years ago. Baur, who’s 44 and lives in West Chicago, was raised in the rural Ozarks. The first artworks he saw were the 19th-century European oil paintings that hung in his home–his father, serving in World War II, had rescued them from likely destruction in the chaos of a collapsing Germany. His father was a minister, and being raised a Baptist made Baur “anti-organized religion. I don’t even like my own authority–as soon as I make a rule, I break that too.”

Baur’s best works are his most irregular and asymmetrical; they’re organized to cut into and energize the space around them. In Star Side three rods project from a central support: two “feet” extend off to the left, and a long, tillerlike shape reaches to the right. Heavily rusted and displaying a variety of colors, this work has a kind of rudder at the tiller’s end that looks about as functional as the concrete oars. The work’s power comes from its mixture of balance and imbalance, symmetry and asymmetry: only one of the feet touches the base, and while the rods projecting to right and left balance one another, the whole seems a bit askew. It’s real metal, apparently a piece of the real world, but its wildly irregular colors and overall jaggedness suggest an artist’s dream as much as an artifact.

If some of Baur’s work made me feel that a level of artistry was missing, the strongest of John Ruppert’s 17 sculptures, on view with seven drawings at the Chicago Cultural Center, more than compensated. Like Baur, Ruppert works at a boundary contemporary artists often test: the divide between the calculated products of an artist’s hand and anonymous found objects. Is the artist creating an articulated form or merely appropriating a piece of nature or culture? Ruppert successfully combines the two poles.

Funnel and Screen places the results of natural processes within an almost classical composition. The heavily patinated cast-bronze funnel, pointing upward, has edges that spread out into an irregularly shaped and colored bronze plate–Ruppert’s representation of the way metal can spill over the edges of a mold during the casting process. The irregular plate supports a wire-mesh screen, and one immediately notes that the funnel points directly to its center. The more one looks, the more the funnel seems to unite the geometrical wire-mesh grid and the almost organic, asymmetric plate, giving the work an elegant balance.

For one series Ruppert made molds of pieces of trees sheared from their trunks by lightning. “You can tell a lightning strike site by the fresh wood lying around and the scar in the tree,” he says. “I would collect the wood and take it back to the studio and reassemble the fragments.” From this he made a sand mold; the final works are of cast aluminum. Torque and Split Strike rise from the floor in irregular bands that gradually separate: some violent event seems to have peeled the work’s strands apart. The shimmering aluminum is mottled with silver, gray, and near-black; there’s no “classical balance” here, in either color or shape. Some of the surfaces are rough or rough-edged, while others are as smooth as sawn wood; the works mix verticals with bends and twists. The dynamic contrasts of these various forms and surfaces combined with the soaring, almost totemic overall shape give these pieces some of the power of an icon. Triad, another lightning piece, has a similarly fractured form, but its placement points to the artist who made it. Its bands are more curved than in other pieces, forming a shallow U, and Ruppert has set it horizontally on the floor, balanced at the U’s bottom point.

But it’s the larger balance Ruppert achieves–between natural processes, industrial fabrication, and the artist’s hand–that distinguishes him from many working in a similar vein. This balance can be seen most clearly in Helix Strike, part of the lightning series, and Glacier Boulders, installed together here. Helix Strike, about 20 feet long, points diagonally out of a corner. Its helixlike bands create a dynamic rhythm that vividly materializes nature’s transformative powers. While the other lightning pieces are of roughly human dimensions, preserving sculpture’s ancient reference to the figure, Helix Strike dwarfs the viewer and seizes the space around it, creating the feeling of an awesome event. Part of it is a cast metal stone lying beside it on the floor; it leads the eye to the semicircular arrangement of the three Glacier Boulders. The one closest to Helix Strike is of cast bronze, with many gaps in the surface so that one can see the hollow space within; the middle one is cast aluminum with an unbroken surface; the last is the actual granite boulder from which the other two were cast. The cast rocks are made so precisely that they capture most of the irregularities in the granite’s surface, so that one’s eye moves easily along the arc of the three Glacier Boulders. And Ruppert has integrated these with Helix Strike, giving the whole a formal elegance and rhythmic unity that are quite moving.

Artists have often presented nature and industry as fundamentally opposed. There are no factories in the mountain paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; when 19th-century American landscape painters included a railroad in their panoramic nature views, it often seemed an intrusion. Many artists today use industrial materials to simulate nature, but generally the results seem far removed from the manufacturing process. Ruppert, however, sees a continuum between natural forces and the heating and molding that shape metal for industrial use, between organic shapes and cast forms. Metal spilling from a mold creates the organic look of Funnel and Screen, and in the lightning series, molded metal and sheared-off tree bark are intimately related. A number of lines in the cast rocks of Glacier Boulders reveal the breaks between the cast sections, but the way they twist through space, following the boulder’s contours, resembles the rhythmic mixture of straight lines and organic twists in the lightning pieces.

Ruppert, 45, went on archaeological digs as a child when his family lived in Jordon. “We’d head out into nowhere and come upon these abandoned remnants of civilization. This architecture had kind of risen out of the earth, organized out of the materials of the area. There were crusader castles, a mix of civilizations. You had these organized materials that then were being reclaimed back into the environment.” In Egypt he saw “temples dug or carved right into the landscape.” When he returned to the United States, he was more aware of the way the landscape was “laid open by the various forces of nature,” revealing its history. Seeing an extinct volcano in New Mexico was a key experience: “You could drive up the outside rim and walk around the top and down inside the crater,” observing where various flows had left their deposits. He sees the gas-fired furnace that melts metal for casting as a metaphor for the volcanic process.

The ease with which Ruppert uses industrial materials can be seen in some of the pieces that aren’t cast. Three sculptures use chain-link fencing, which Ruppert began to notice after settling in his current Baltimore neighborhood. But instead of emphasizing its linearity or using it to seal off spaces, he shapes it into curved forms that create a complex rhetoric between inside and out. Chamber is an elegant bulb open at the top, inviting a mind’s-eye passage through it; the lacy shadow it casts on the floor ties it to the surrounding space. For Ruppert, the fence pieces are about “grander forces of nature than you can really comprehend.” He compares them to magnetic fields–and they do resemble force diagrams in physics textbooks as well as woven organic patterns like honeycombs.

A few pieces suggest that, however many parallels Ruppert may see between natural and industrial processes, he’s also aware of differences. In Full Circle a large gearlike object lies on a plane of dark gray sand in which the gear has been rotated to produce circular imprints of its teeth. These precisely repeated ridges contrast with the sand’s scattered, glimmering points of reflected light shining out of the dark. In Split Rock Ruppert again juxtaposes an actual rock with a casting of it; the rock has one fairly smooth face, as if split by ice. Ruppert has placed the rock and sculpture with their flat planes facing, as if the casting were the rock’s other half and the two pieces could perhaps be reunited. Ruppert’s casting does duplicate the tiny irregularities of the rock’s face, but like Humpty Dumpty, the two will never be put back together again: for that the cast face would need to be the mirror image, not the duplicate, of the actual rock. The near-union of nature and culture only makes one more aware of the inevitable gap between them, as the artist movingly acknowledges his–and his ymaterials’–limitations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Star Side” by Mike Baur.