This is Kathy Ruttenberg’s first exhibition at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. It is designed to coincide with “In Dreams Awake,” an installation of six monumental outdoor sculptures by Ruttenberg that run from 64th through 157th Streets in Manhattan, presented by the Broadway Mall Association (a show that runs through February 2019). Many of the works in the gallery exhibition—ceramic sculpture and watercolor drawings—served as maquettes or preparatory studies for the larger sculptures: a woman’s arms and legs emerge from a tree trunk holding a mask (a study for All the Word’s a Stage); a male figure with the head of a stag walks arm-and-arm with a half-woman/half-tree (for In Sync); a mermaid sits in an acrylic fishbowl (for Fish Bowl); an armless mouse with gold high-heeled shoes stands atop an acorn squash (for Ms. Mighty Mouse); and an upside-down and unclothed female figure balances a globe at her feet (for Topsy Turvy).
Other works included in the exhibition offer an entirely new view into Ruttenberg’s world of fantasy and, as the title of this show suggests, they are personal thoughts and visions made manifest and brought into a public space, one laced with such powerful flights of fancy that they approach the reenactment of a dream: in Origin of Man, a female figure is precariously perched on the back of a prostrate, humanoid stag; in Logger, a male figure holds a tree trunk at his belly with a human head emerging from the other end; in Tree Girl, a young female figure looks at an owl perched above her from the branch of a tree; in Eden, a man with the head of a stag grooms a girl’s hair, her dress opening to reveal a nude woman lying in the woods. All of these works are personal and self-reflective, as in Fertile Ground, which features a nude female figure lying on her back as a bird perches on her belly guarding a nest with three blue eggs. What is somewhat disconcerting about this figure is to notice that a log straddles the woman’s neck, suggesting that she is no longer living, her body relegated to the rejuvenating forces of nature that envelope her. The self-reflective nature of this image is compelling, for Ruttenberg lives on a mountaintop in upstate New York, her home and studio not only surrounded by a host of wild creatures, but she cares for a variety of rescued animals on her property, from Vietnamese potbelly pigs, trained miniature horses, to rare hens and roosters, not to mention numerous birds, dogs and cats.
There is, of course, a long history of artists who create figurative work in clay, but the ceramic artist with whom Ruttenberg bears perhaps the closest stylistic affinity is Beatrice Wood (1893-1998), an artist whose work has been the subject of several exhibitions at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. As a corollary to the Ruttenberg exhibition, a selection of Wood’s figurative ceramic sculpture and drawings will be on display in a smaller space between the two main galleries.
The show marks the release of the newest book on Ruttenberg’s work, In Dreams Awake: Kathy Ruttenberg on Broadway, with an introductory essay by Deborah A. Goldberg, PhD (Pointed Leaf Press, New York). Copies will be available for purchase at the gallery. Ruttenberg and Goldberg will discuss the sculptures in the Broadway Mall project on January 28th (6:00-8:30 PM) in “Dreams Awake,” School of Visual Arts, Room 101C, 133/141 West 21st Street, New York, NY.