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Lush, Lusty Landscapes

Take a Deep Breath and Surrender

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Woodsongs is a show of paintings by Brian Rutenberg at the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte through May 10. Rutenberg is a Carolina native, born and raised in the coastal low country between Pawley's Island and Charleston, SC. The salt marshes, muck and silt air of that curious geography run through Rutenberg's paintings like a good memory.Brian Rutenberg is a painter's painter. That doesn't mean he paints for other painters, but he is a painter other painters can admire, will learn from, trust and envy. The title doesn't necessarily confer a vaunted status to Rutenberg -- the back alleys and ballrooms of Modern Art History are littered with giants and jesters who played to small cliques of the informed, or deluded, few. But Rutenberg's paintings are for the many.

Rutenberg is following in the wake of painters like Willem DeKooning, Arshile Gorky and Chaim Soutine, pure painters, artists who use as their starting point the mat far away from their medium. And they won't let you forget that it's paint on canvas, either. If anyone was born to paint, it's these guys. As Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe and Whitman used words, Rutenberg uses oil paint. He is strident, restless, votive, lush and over the top.

These landscapes are more than landscapes. They are dirt-under-the-fingernails treks of discovery, unexplored terrain for those of us who are more likely to dip a toe in the water than to jump in a jungle pond naked. Taking in this show is like an act of faith -- frightening, thrilling and maybe a little dangerous. The payoff for any leap of faith is a gamble, but trust me, the odds here are good.

"Tangled Lake," 2001-2002, like all the paintings here, is a landscape, but that's a little like saying The Grapes of Wrath is a story.

Massive tree trunks muscle from the bottom edge of the canvas. The trees sprout awkward tendrilled limbs upward through a pasty brown soup of marsh, muck and forest floor. One sunlit luminous edge of forest rims a path wrapping a central body of water.

The oval of water is the reflected forest against the sky rendered in a scumbled, thin-layered oil paint. The forest and sky in water are reduced to an airy organic purple, blue, aqua and orange mist. Beyond the pond is a rising berm of layered forest -- trees, leaves and decay rising through the canvas' top edge. A thin broken line of blue peeks through the uppermost edge, the only hint of breath available in this compressed organic fusion of color and form and texture. You'll need to come up for air.

This painting hovers between the common and the majestic, the instantly new and been there forever, the sticky vegetable and the coolly cerebral. It's as close to an altered state of consciousness as you can get without a visit to the ashram or chemistry lab.

You've seen ads offering portrait painters in the back pages of Southern Living? And you've seen any portrait by Vermeer? There you go. That's the difference between a landscape and these landscapes.

Like most painters who turn out to be really good, Rutenberg is a little scary, baffling, bawdy, boisterous, flagrant, randy and intense. Like Richard Pryor on a roll (before the fall), or Friedrich Nietzsche on a paroxysmal rant, these paintings can overwhelm and suffocate. That can be uncomfortable -- you may need to take a breath. Walk around the parking lot and come back in.

A note of caution: If you plan to go see this show, it might take a little effort to appreciate the work fully. It did for me. That's not because it's "difficult" like too much conceptual or minimalist art, or because it's made daunting by layers of theory or tiresome art history references, or because it's offensive. The effort required here involves surrender. It's the same surrender you need to read Faulkner, listen to John Cage or sit through an entire NASCAR event: You gotta give it up, drop the preconceptions, lose yourself in the paintings in front of you. Sound too much like work? Yeah, so was the first raw oyster you ate.

"Delta II" is meaty overabundance. On two sides of the canvas are well defined organic tendrils, viscous blooms and swaying, gnarled, twisted and knotted trees lurching to the top of the canvas. Fluorescent orange, peach, vermilion and scarlet vines waft down through the trees. The untamed growth rises from a fertile ground of patchwork impasto oil paint, scabs of purple, green and oxide red thick as bark. It's so clotted and loamy it smells a little fetid. The artist has stuck his fingers up to the third knuckle in mud.

At center and top is a respite of air and water, breath taken, thirst quenched. This is where the thick, darkly saturated density of animate form gives way to flattened, washy, light and open space. The airy and ethereal light is top and center, but gives precious little room to breathe.

Also here are works on paper, all about 22" x 30". The same visual theme flows through these works, but the effect is less intense, which is a little relieving. Thick and saturated colors rim the edges, but the work is lighter, less tangled and challenging, and less likely to give one a pleasantly pulsing head after prolonged exposure.

The palette is lighter, the ambiguous "washed" areas larger, the overall effect less overpowering. Rutenberg's signature power is quieted and softened by diminished size and increased breathing room. These smaller works on paper will only illuminate and animate a room, not take it hostage. That may be why half these smaller pieces sold on opening night -- one of the large paintings could claim a whole room to itself.

Take a million kids, give them each an electric guitar, you may get one Jimi Hendrix. Rutenberg is Jimi Hendrix with a better life expectancy. Maybe I haven't seen a million painters, but it sure feels like it. Most make my daughter look like a genius, some are tolerably good, a few are a relief, reassuring, refreshing, even occasionally a joy. One in many hundreds takes the medium into unspeakable realms, beyond any reasonable expectations. Rutenberg drags painting into the same place language sometimes happily drags experience: into the shared arena of the sublime.

Brian Rutenberg's exhibit Woodsongs will

be presented through May 10 at Jerald Melberg Gallery, Morrocroft Village, 3900 Colony Road. For more information, call 704-365-3000.

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