Arts » Visual Arts

Mud, Blood And Beauty

Riverbend exhibit offers thrilling visions



"Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time." -- Albert Camus

As a boy, Brian Rutenberg slogged into the wet lowlands around his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It's not likely his mother approved. In a formerly untrammeled bog, the child sat and looked around. He sensed the majesty, power and mystery in the magical nexus of water, land and sky. He sucked the place into his skin as thoroughly as a morning mist wicks through a loamy log. On his way out of the wetlands, he met a few artists -- Constable, Turner, Kandinsky, a few French Impressionists and one musician named Glenn Gould. He walked to dry land lugging the stuff he had carried in -- his inner realm, that odd grace which allows him to deliver his received gifts to us now.

In his exhibit Riverbend, Brian Rutenberg's paintings are as clear as the trill running through your chest on first seeing the ocean. As thrilling as an unanticipated joy.

In the painting "Song of the Santee," remnants of a literal landscape evaporate where sky once met water, and where riverbanks recede and vaporize. Light cascades down the canvas from the top to center. A wash of translucent yellow paint is released from above. Washed colors tumble from pale yellow to neon crimson to deep purple grey; light to water to ground. As vestigial sky, horizon and water contract in the middle, natural impressions dissolve, and the core erupts toward us. Colors collide and rub. Verdant green, edible red and river bottom brown rush in clotted caissons from the core to the clipped neutral edge of the wall. The artist has exited his wet wood.

What I remember from my last visit to see Brian Rutenberg's paintings is branches, vines and limbs draped across the water, and woods climbing riverbanks to forested hills beyond. The only fragment of a forest left in "Song of the Santee" is a faded red filament of webbed branches lacing the middle of the canvas. What emerges from within and beyond these skeletal stalks of landscape is the transfigured spiritual territory of the artist -- his turf, his imagination. He requests we follow. We leave the woods to visit the essence of a place forever etched on the artist's brain, and we walk with him toward an event likely etched forever on our own.

I see these paintings as I witness the woods on waking from a midsummer nap: Things have changed as I slept. Leaves fell, limbs twisted, lines of shade stretched and the light lifted. That's the kind of event a Brian Rutenberg painting is. Your life won't change on waking, but an interesting parallel life will be revealed. It's not an epiphany, but an invitation to walk into one.

In "Pine Palm and River 7," an atmospheric pink central cloud wafts to the edges; light washes down like radioactive dust. Through the mist come vertical strings, spidery grids, patches of negative space. This was once a forest.

The left side of the painting is dark and clotted and sober -- thick moss oozing through fingered tree trunks gripping the ground. Webbed vertical limbs cut through the thickened smears of tar-moss. On the right side of the painting, red tendrils cut through panes of blue and brown tar to a thin bright red and pink evanescent atmosphere of radiant stained glass luminescence.

Adjacent colors are adversarial and companionable, aggressive and compliant. The inherent violence in these paintings acknowledges our species' bloodlust legacy, as the beauty of the paintings trumpets our better selves. Grace trumps gore in Brian's world.

What experiential analogs do I have for these paintings? These:

Leon Trotsky's written speeches, Michael Jackson's first moon walk (1984), Martin Luther King's spoken words at the National Cathedral, my first sighting over the North rim of the Grand Canyon, my daughter's first hard laugh, dawn through the doors of brutal night, the fearless love and boundless longing in my child's eyes.

Some of these paintings are small explosions. "Riverbend 24" is handheld volcanic explosion, a red burst of ash and flame and fire in the guise of a walk through the woods. It is a meditation on the unexpected sublime; a fire underfoot, a dart and dodge through an undulant and color saturated landscape. The painting is a promised truth imbedded in the sticky muck of primordial sludge, a shout of ascendance sprung from the river bottom. The thick and rotted smell of the water, wood and moss stab your nose as air blows underfoot and the little hairs on your neck stand up straight.

The true explanation for the appeal of this work is both extraordinary and common: These paintings reveal a wisdom we each carry; an internal wisdom we have always suspected, but have rarely, if ever, visited. Rutenberg taps the collective and unconscious realization that we humans are all, primarily, spiritual cores wrapped within mortal vessels. Rutenberg is a luminous crack in the sidewalk of our daily routine, a glow under the skin of this illusory walk through life. Our lives are deservedly writ large in these paintings.

"At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than lost paradise." -- Albert Camus

Rutenberg retrieves Camus' lost paradise from river mud and memory. With his gifted hand and visionary eye, he pushes our everyday, untapped ecstasy through his transformative sieve, and onto the canvas. Here is a wonderful place where words cannot live.

The exhibit Riverbend is showing through Dec. 9 at the Jerald Melberg Gallery, 625 South Sharon Amity Road. For more info, call 704-365-3000 or go to The paintings will show again at the Hickory Museum of Art from March 24 through June 17, 2007.