Native Son: Ross Rudel “Green Man Resurrection” Exhibit Opens New Era for Dahl Fine Arts Center
Tuesday, 27 January 2009 12:49Denise Du Broy Interviews Ross Rudel
Denise Du Broy: When did you start making art?
Ross Rudel: My mother is an artist (Rapid City artist Doris Rudel, whose printed and beaded tapestry "Treasure of the Pharaoh" is featured in "The Art of Personal Adornment" exhibition currently showing at the Dahl). I grew up partially in Montana, and she was very involved in the Montana Institute of Arts. My earliest exposure was from a group of artists in Montana who would gather every year for the MIA festival that would happen in towns across the state. These were the most inspiring artists across Montana.
And they would congregate in one place. It was the 1960s, which was a very rich time. We moved to Rapid City in the early 70s. It was a rich time here as well.
The connections between politics, the land, culture, hippie culture in relation to the arts, congealed in a very beautiful way in the 1960s and through the 1970s, and it happened in the best way in the more remote areas rather than the urban centers. Of course, the Hills are magic. Indians acknowledged that forever. The Black Hills have a resonance that you can't find anywhere else. And the people that migrated here, especially the artists, were really interesting people. So when we moved here, my mom got involved in the arts scene here.
Denise Du Broy: How old were you?
Ross Rudel: I was eleven. And Dick Termes came and taught at Stevens High School. I did a mural project there and was introduced to Dick. My teachers were wonderful, and recognized that I had an inclination for the arts. They gave me a certain amount of free rein that I ran with. Dick was incredibly inspiring. You go inside his place, and you turn on switches, and everything starts rotating, and everything is round.
I do a lot of round work, and I can probably attribute a lot of that to the way of thinking that Dick taught me. He taught me perspective systems that always led to a circle. In the end, the more sophisticated it got the rounder it got until with his spheres, it is the utterly resolved perspective, the perfect perspective.
My first year of college I went to Black Hills State specifically because Dick was teaching there, and I worked for a year with him. I learned color theory from Dick, and I had a great year.
Denise Du Broy: How do you relate to not being in New York or Los Angeles if you are a young artist from the Black Hills?
Ross Rudel: Acknowledge your compulsion. The best artists are those who are driven, and if you have it in you just be aware of it and pursue it. And don't let anyone undermine it. And it will carry you wherever you need to go.
The inspirations here are as rich as anywhere, both naturally and in terms of personalities. The local culture is really rich. The historical culture of the Black Hills is richer than anywhere else in the country, I think. The clash of culture, whatever resolution of the clash of cultures is still taking place. The ways the Hills have been used. It's just a wonderful place for material for inspiration, and beauty. It's hard to beat.
And the spiritual resonance of this whole area is breathtaking.
Denise Du Broy: When you talk about influences, artists are lots of times influenced by particular people, other artists, people who are not artists, or nature. How would you describe your main influences, and do they meander a lot? Do they change a lot?
Ross Rudel: Yes. One of my professors at Montana State set me on a path that I think I have followed ever since. He kept telling me to stay in motion, just stay in motion, and be aware. There is a wealth of information in the world today, especially with the technology for the dissemination of information, the information of the rate of discovery, the rate of technology, the rate of understanding the universe, the way we are understanding molecules, there's inspiration everywhere.
My trick, what I have done forever, is take whatever is in front of me, whatever inspires me, and work it into art. I have been blessed with having galleries that give me exhibits, and I am always working toward a show. And so I have all these ideas that are just coming out of the ether, and are on my plate, and either jell into pieces or they don't. But the resolution of all that thinking comes when I do an exhibit, and put it all together and try to make sense of it.
And the fact that it covers a wide breadth, describes human experience. We don't experience just one thing. We experience all kinds of things. We are influenced by all kinds of things. And the wider the spectrum of things that influence you, I think the richer your work will be...if you can figure out a way to make it all make sense.
Denise Du Broy: Given that discussion of being influenced by everything around you, and the importance of observation, which names would you pull out of the hat, which names do you feel strongly attracted to?
Ross Rudel: In California, the people who influenced me there, and maybe influence the umbrella aesthetic that I deal with, which is a fairly minimal aesthetic are the light and space artists of Southern California, who acknowledged that environment and used the aesthetic of the time, which was highly minimal, and imbued it with the light that was present in Southern California, so it was breathing life, a presence, into minimalism that was, by design, omitted by its precedents.
And the work I started doing right out of graduate school took that idea, and my thinking was to sensualize it, literally sensualize minimal sculpture. So I was making objects that were very geometric, or dealt with very simple symbology, but gave it as much... sometimes erotic, sometimes just purely sensual...it begs to be touched, looks like it has been touched, caressed. My carving techniques are such that I have a really intimate relationship with the object, so there truly is a sensual relationship that I have with the work that I do.
But now, when I see something in my work that I recognize from somewhere else, I will divert from that path. I am seeking something that I have not seen before. I guess that's kind of an old school approach. But I am looking for my own originality and, if I am influenced too much by someone else, I can't trust it. So I will divert if I sense that I am heading somewhere that I am familiar with that someone else has done. I try to avoid direct influence.
That being said, I am part of and I am inundated with a really rich art center. There is really interesting work being done, and I make an effort to see everything that is being done. How that works into my work I can't really say, it's part of that pool of information that I draw from. And, again, if I recognize it as being too specific to a particular artist, then I will avoid doing that.
Denise Du Broy: Is that something that you are conscious of, or do you sometimes find yourself in the middle of something and say, "Wow, this kind of reminds me of so and so..."
Ross Rudel: I think it happens more fluidly, more naturally, where I subconsciously recognize something and divert from it. And as soon as I make the diversion, I am off to somewhere else. It happens organically. I am not that conscious of it.
Denise Du Broy: On the surfaces of these pieces, it is evident that the tactile part is really important, and that there is this real sensuality about a lot of them. But you also said something about not having the pieces touched. A lot of artists don't want their pieces touched, because touching can ruin it. There is one piece here, specifically, that people are encouraged to touch, the Blind Finger Labyrinth, but isn't that kind of contradictory, and how do you feel about the idea that "I want to go over and touch the Double Helix."
Ross Rudel: This is a part of my aesthetic that I developed that I am recognized for. When I mentioned the sensuality of the work that I am doing, it's a visceral sensuality, and there is a level of frustration in looking at them. There is more work on the floor in this exhibit than I have done in many years. I have never put a piece on a pedestal before. As soon as you put something on a pedestal it becomes art, and I have always made work that I take to be a real object in the world. It is executing something in the world. And when people approach this work that is this visceral, and have a gut reaction to it, that is a physical interaction with somebody without them touching the work. And if that can be perpetuated to the extent that it is true frustration, then I am really having a strong effect.
With the Blind Finger Labyrinth, it's a blind encounter. You're touching it, but you are not because you can't see yourself touching it. The experience of the piece is entirely tactile, and the surprise at the end is a physical reaction to the piece because of something that happens at the termination of the piece.
You mentioned influences. In recent years, there are a lot of ancient spiritual symbols that I have been drawing from. The last exhibit I did in New York was work that I did in response to symbols that I came across that I had some connection to. I didn't really understand. I just pursued it on that level, without knowing the history of that symbol. In some cases, they were obvious, but I avoided all of the historical baggage that would come with the symbols and just dealt with them on a personal level.
Denise Du Broy: Because they are so important, let's deal with the materials you use and their importance You've said that they are usually symbolic. So let's choose a piece.
Ross Rudel: Let's start with Untitled Manzanita. It's probably the most obvious in that regard. The wood is manzanita from Mt. Shasta, where I was involved at a spiritual gathering. And the people who sponsored this event were right at the base of Mt. Shasta. And they had cleared an area of manzanita to create a labyrinth, a walking labyrinth. The antler that the claws are carved from is a deer antler from the Black Hills. The fabric belonged to my deceased brother and it was part of the decoration of the house that we shared in Bozeman, Montana my first year of college up there, and where Greg went up to Canada and didn't return. So I've had this fabric for years, waiting for an opportunity to do something with it. The wood of the box has significance. It's a piece of oak I have had for a long time, and I have had a relationship with, and I knew this piece required that level of relationship. So everything about this piece I have profound personal symbology behind it. And that is often the case.
With Green Man Resurrection, I had the dream that went into this piece. And weeks after I had the dream, the L.A. River, which my studio sits next to, bloomed with algae that I had never seen anything like. I just started to harvest it knowing that I was going to do something in relation to the dream. The timing of all of that was very symbolic.
With Vigil, the stump is from a woodpile. My studio is on the L.A. River. I ride my bike around the area a lot. There's a bike path that runs along the river and upriver from me about a mile there's a wood pile of old logs. I went in and asked about it at an old shack that seemed to be responsible for the pile. I was told that when the City of Los Angeles cuts down trees on city streets they would take them there, cut them into sections, and then they would sell them to the Boy Scouts and Forest Service to sell as fire wood. I asked if I could get access to the pile, and I was denied. So I would go on weekends, and ride my bike up river, and throw my bike over the fence, and climb the fence and peruse the pile, find the logs that I liked, leverage them off the wood pile, and into an adjacent ravine, and ride my bike back home, get my car and go to the equestrian center that was adjacent to the ravine, haul a hand truck up there and lug these logs out.
So physically I have a profound relationship with these logs. And in each case they are extremely character filled logs that I work with. The sterling silver portion of this piece I got from a second hand store in Los Angeles. It had been stamped "Ritz Carlton". It was an ashtray stand from the Ritz Carlton bar in Los Angeles. The plate on top of it, I researched. Whatever type of spiritual I engage in usually has to do with a pagan ritual that deals with the four directions, always dealing with and acknowledging the four directions. The colors that I have chosen for this medicine wheel are the colors that are acknowledged by the Lakota Sioux.
When this is energized, it's motorized, this antler does this wonderful pirouette on top of this piece. The entire piece was generated from just this one action. I set it on a card table and watched it rotate and contemplated it for months, and came up with this.
Denise Du Broy: It sounds like, in terms of your approach, that a lot of it is intuitive, and visceral and derives from a lot of time spent contemplating...
Ross Rudel: The type of work I do is incredibly labor intensive. And it is so for its meditative qualities. What I get out of it is, literally, spending hours, and hours, and hours, and hours on something. It requires a patience that requires a meditative state. I am doing repetitive actions. The sanding actions that I do are the same stroke, thousands and thousands of times. It actually works like a mantra.
When I was in high school, when I was supposed to be taking notes, I would sit and draw circles with a pen, small circles, and count as I was drawing circles. And I would fill a page with as many circles as I could, usually in the area of three or four thousand circles I could get on a page of paper. And I found that as I was doing it I was actually absorbing the information I was being told better than if I was trying to convert the language I was hearing into written notes. And then later I would re-visit what I had learned that day and write it up in a way that I understood. And it would work better for me. So it was literally a mantra. Many of these pieces are mantras in the sense that they demonstrate visually what I experience in process.
One of the symbols that I have used frequently through the years is this flower, which is a Stapilia. It's a succulent. They grow well in the desert environment of Los Angeles. When they bloom in the summer, they make these wonderful pods. There's a Stapilia Grande that makes this bloom that is twelve inches in diameter. It's huge, and hairy and gorgeous. But these also smell of rotting meat. They pollinate by attracting flies. In the Stepilia Grande the flies will actually leave eggs around the center of the blossom, and if I watch it long enough maggots will begin to move in the center of the flower. Not so much with these little ones. I love the symbology of that flower. It represents this incredible vitality when they bloom. They just bloom in an hour. They just open up, and here I am, and they actually stretch themselves backward and just explode. It's like exuberant youth, in that action, and yet they smell of death. For me to preserve that, of course, I can dry them, but if I dry them they don't have the vitality. So it took me forever, and it takes multiple attempts each time to get them set in resin. And I don't know what sort of alchemy happens that allows it to happen, because it is a succulent. It's 99% water.
I've probably done about six or eight of these successfully over the years. But it's always hit or miss. And with this one, with the red bowl, I had to remake the bowl every time. So I just carved a whole mess of these bowls. I would carve them, and it wouldn't work. Sometimes the resin cooks. And sometimes they just rot in there. When they work, I have no idea why. Where does the water go? Is the water still in the resin? Resin is impervious to water, so I don't know where it goes. There is a whole alchemy to the process of making these. I have arrested them at the point of both youthful exuberance and a symbol of death, so it is all encompassed in one thing.
Denise Du Broy: It does seem like even though there are a fair amount of media involved in this show of sixteen pieces, there is a special connection that has been consistent, with your relationship with wood. Where do you think that relationship with wood came from?
Ross Rudel: I want these objects to be understood as real things. Wood has a life force, and this piece titled Vigil. I have a mental place for this piece. From when I first started working with the stump, I know exactly where this sits in a landscape. There is sap that is bleeding from the dead stump. My take on it is that the funnel was just stabbed in to it. What life force remained is just bleeding from it. This is a barometer, the rotating antler is a barometer of the residual energy, of the life force that this stump still has. In so many instances in Los Angeles I have seen trees that have been chopped down, where there is still a full-on life force in there.
The fact that I am carving wood, it has a life force. It has a history. It had a whole life of experience. And I believe that is contained in the cells of what I am working with. The fact that it had a life force, I hope imbues it with a life force that carries on. So that lends itself both symbolically and literally to what I'm after; this resonance of a real thing, that you experience physically, as if you are in an encounter with another real being of some sort.
Denise Du Broy: Tell me about the Double Helix.
Ross Rudel: I had this log for a very long time, and I thought about how to do it justice. It had all these beautiful burls on it. It was the ugliest, gnarled log I had ever seen, beautiful in every way. And I finally resolved to do a Double Helix, which describes the genetics which led to whatever situation this tree was in that caused it to be this gnarly. And I exploited the inherent geometry of those gnarls. Every anomaly that happened on the surface is accounted for on the ridge of the double helix. So the double helix is not by my design. It had to take this form. It had to accomplish what it needed to accomplish.
Fractal geometry has been in my mind recently. I have been reading some recent research about fractal geometry, a geometry that reduces in size and repeats itself, then repeats itself again. That can go to infinity. It can go in either direction. It can either expand or contract to infinity.
If the preliminary research turns out to be true, fractal geometry accounts for the spacing of trees, the spacing of branch to branch, the spacing of one branch to the next on a branch. So the most organic stuff we can think of is accounted for in a very understandable geometry. So these anomalies in this are probably not only genetic, but also proportionally tied to some sort of cosmic geometry.
I use a technique of sanding this type of work that I have not known anyone else to use. I use sandpaper and one thumb, my left thumb, a process of drawing the sandpaper underneath the thumb. So the carving is literally the result of the contact of that one thumb. It works extremely well on concavities that extend over a distance. It is incredibly arduous and time consuming. And it is a meditative process, a physical meditation for me. There is a timing factor to it. Drawing and drawing and drawing. It literally accounts for a lot of time, a lot of thinking. If you apply a mantra to anything, something you are repeating in your head, and your brain will go to really wonderful places.
Ross Rudel: The Proprietary Dream Mandala is the result of a dream that I had. In this one I was in a collector's home and I was wandering around looking at his collection. And the house was just the most amazing place I had ever been. He had landscaped the interior. There was earth on the floor, and it was contoured. I came around the corner and I saw this piece on the wall. And in the dream I was jut obsessed with this piece. And I was trying to figure out how I could steal this idea and get away with it. So it is the Proprietary Dream Mandala.
I needed it to resolve itself. And it took me the better part of a year off and on, working on graph paper, creating a geometry that would come to a complete resolution. And no matter where you look at this piece numerically it extends into space. You can do it concentrically. You can do it linearly. You can do it radially. It always resolves itself, and it requires a full deck of cards. It took me forever. I finally had this "Eureka!" moment when I saw it on the graph paper. I said, "I think this is it!" I couldn't believe it. And I think that is the nature of playing cards. They don't resolve themselves. That's what makes them so fascinating. That's why Tarot is so fascinating. The numerology involved with playing cards is very magic. So coming to the resolution was an epiphany for me. It's not very pleasing. It's a cacophony of information to deal with. Mandalas tend to be very peaceful, very peace generating. This one is disturbing, and yet I find it very engaging.
Denise DuBroy: Chronologically do you work on one piece at a time, is there one that is most recent, or do you work on several at a time?
Ross Rudel: Everything that was done for the Dahl was done at the same time. I have been working on all the pieces for a year. I mean they were all finished within a month, and many of them in consecutive days. I knew I had a deadline, and that is how I get to the point when it just has to come together. And each piece has its own trajectory too, but terminating at the point of the exhibition. That's what is so wonderful about having exhibits. You have this day when everything has to come together. Some of them happen quickly. Some of them I can realize in advance that they will take more effort. All of that comes into play leading up to that day.
Ross Rudel: When it comes in it is for a very specific reason. The Psychedelic Root I discovered shortly after it had been dug up. It's from a fairly small tree, a tree that was smaller in diameter than the root itself. It's a root, so when I dug it up, it's where all the water was. And I got my girlfriend to go with me. I saw it on the side of the road, and I called her up and said, "I've got something to show you." I said, "I need this. I've got to have it." And she said, "Well, have you tried to pick it up?" We tried to pick it up, and it weighed a ton. It took the two of us using leverage of all sorts to get this into my car. It took an hour to get it in there. The front wheels of my car were almost off the ground. It is so porous, because it is a root, and because water has to very quickly transfer through it, and the cells are very open. Now that it is dry, it is very light, and I can carry it all over.
Denise Du Broy: It was all water?
Ross Rudel: Yes. It was. It hung from my ceiling for a while. It stood in the corner. It's just such a profound thing. It probably took six months to dry. It also dried much quicker than a regular piece of wood. When I have a log that I am trying to cure it takes an average of three months per inch of thickness.
Denise Du Broy: In terms of color being specific, how did you use color in this?
Ross Rudel: There are two geometries at work here. One is just the spiral of the full root itself, but the grain compounds that. It actually spirals in addition. But that isn't as obvious. It seemed to be two different things to me. I wanted to make that more visual. So I knew I was going to have to paint it.
I just finished reading the last chapter of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan on my way out here. The chapter was about potatoes, and things that grow underground instead of above ground, and the cultural significance of those things as they developed in Europe. And the Irish, the pagan Irish, have always been pagan in the British mind, partially because they had developed a culture around potatoes. They grew underground. They didn't require cultivation. You just stick them underground. They grow underground. It freed them to not be on a linear trajectory that everything else is on. And there is a lot of that in this exhibit. It allowed the Irish to continue a pagan tradition of dealing with the land, dealing with a cycle, annual cycles. Harvest time was a time for digging. This all happened underground. There's just a magic to this thing that I wanted to accentuate in the best way I could.
The color choices were really difficult, because I am not a colorist. It took a full year of me experimenting with different colors before I resolved on these. The silver was magic. A friend recommended that I try silver and I came up with a particular silver that when I brushed it on it was literally like painting age on to the root. It was like I was creating driftwood with a brush. As I drew the brush across it, it just aged. It was magic. It was a perfect resolution. Silver was the last color that I dealt with. Yellow submarine has also been in my mind since I started working on this. I wanted to create a psychedelic yellow submarine.
Also, I am nocturnal by nature. So the things that happen in the dark, the essence of nature, are of interest to me.
There is a moon object, a sculpture in the exhibit, Harvest Moon. It's a wooden bowl, with a hole drilled through it, with resin poured into the bowl, and then re-carved into a bowl shape. So when this is on the wall, the moon will literally be the wall seen behind the piece. So I will have to paint the wall, a white disk on the wall. For years, I did these. I think I did four of them. And each time I got better and better at it. What I wanted to create was that experience of the full moon, being nocturnal.
Every full moon I am out a good portion of the night taking it in. I hike on every full moon. Where I am in Los Angeles I have ready accessibility to Griffith Park. When Griffith Park burned a year and a half ago it was just an apocalyptic fire. And all of the trails that I run on at night were scorched. And so I followed through on something that I have had a compulsion to do since I started running, I went up on a full moon on the summer solstice and I ran nude from the base of Griffith Park to the summit and back. I didn't see a soul. And it was a really profound experience.
I kept trying to get through to the experience that I had looking at the moon, and this piece finally accomplished it.
I can go out, look at the moon, come back into my studio, look at this piece, and say, "Yeah, that's it. I finally got it." So this piece is a period at the end of a sentence.
Denise Du Broy: Recently you have started teaching. How has that experience fit into your life as an artist? Is it rewarding? Is it emotionally exhausting? Do you do it to make a living? Does it have an impact on your art?
Ross Rudel: All of the above. I am an adjunct. I teach the fundamental courses. I teach at Occidental College, and Los Angeles State College, and some out at Cal Arts. Often these are students that won't pursue art. These are general education students who have a requirement to take an art class.
Artists have a particular way of seeing the world. And the way that I work, if I can get something across to students, it is kind of keeping an over-view of the world around them rather than specializing. I heard Buckminster Fuller do a three-hour lecture the year that he passed away and it was all about the folly of specialization. We are now seeing the result of too much specialization. If your right hand doesn't know what your left hand is doing, you get into a lot of trouble. Now it is hitting society from every direction.
There is a paradigm shift happening right now. The timing is just amazing, all of these problems hitting the wall at the same time. There is a lot to be optimistic about at the same time. The paradigm shift acknowledges the need for a whole new way of thinking, a more holistic approach to everything. The world has gotten very small in the past decade. What goes on in one place can have a profound effect on the other side of the world, and visa versa.
There are a lot of mantras in this exhibit. Someone asked me why I do a lot of circles. And my answer is that everything resolves into a circle, and we as a society and we as a culture are linear in our trajectory. The rate of change has been exponential, and it is the cause of our hitting these walls. I am trying to make things, make situations that step aside from that. So I tend to use materials like wood.
I am well aware of technology around me. I am well aware of the pace of technology, but I choose to make these works out of traditional material, as something that is a focus, that is an eddy in the current, a place that, when you get in front of this, you pause. They are for me literally a meditation process. So if I can create a meditative device (and that's why I refer to some of these as mantras, or tantras) it's a calm place to go, and a place to stop and focus. They are highly, highly focused.
The idea behind the work serves the process and the work serves the end product. Hopefully it all ties together and can serve the same purpose for somebody else.
Denise Du Broy: How does the artist survive in a time like this?
Ross Rudel: I have never survived in a time like this, so I have no idea. And I haven't exhibited in an environment like this. This is all very new. This economic downturn we are involved in is less than a year old. I haven't exhibited in a commercial gallery in the past year so I don't know. I do know that a lot of them are suffering, and a lot of galleries are dropping.
The interesting thing about artists is that it is a compulsion. You aren't going to be happy, or be satisfied unless you are creating. And we figure out ways to do it no matter what. There are a million different ways to do it. That's the marvel of being an artist. You can make money in a hundred different ways involved with the art. You can make money in other ways if you don't want that influence in your art. But in this environment, none of us have experienced anything like this.
Denise Du Broy: In the circle you live and work in, do you notice whether there is a change in the conversation, the way people live, the way they think about things?
Ross Rudel: I am not doing well with this question. I am a hermit. And leading into an exhibit of this size, I am not out, and I really don't know. But for the people who are in my immediate circle, they reach out and it depends on where you are in the art world. Some places have already been hit significantly. Others, there is no indication, especially the high end. There is no indication that there is a recession at hand...yet.
But there is a deep nervousness about the future. And in the mean time there is this profound hope, having this new president come into office, who was elected on the idea of change and a paradigm shift.
NOTE: Green Man Resurrection is showing in the Ruth Brennan Gallery of the Dahl Fine Arts Center through April 19. www.thedahl.org
Click Here to see Pictures of Ross' work.