Patience really is a virtue.
Gifted abstract painter Brian Rutenberg still remembers the first time one of his paintings was shown at the Gibbes back in 1985. He was a 20-year-old College of Charleston student contributing to a group show, dreaming of his first solo exhibition in the museum. It's taken 24 years, but here he is, filling the Main Gallery with 14 paintings and four works on paper.
In those intervening years, Rutenberg's wait has been enlivened with industry. After receiving a BFA here in 1987, he earned an MFA at New York's School of Visual Arts. He's been nibbling at the Big Apple ever since, with dozens of exhibitions in New York City including shows at the School of Visual Arts, Bill Bace Gallery, and a solo debut at the Cavin-Morris Gallery, which put him on the art world map.
Since then, Rutenberg's work has been placed in 16 museums and public collections. His long list of awards is enough to make any struggling artist sick; it includes a Fulbright scholarship, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, a Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation grant, and a Basil H. Alkazzi Award. Not bad for a kid from Myrtle Beach.
"My imagination was formed in the Lowcountry," he told us earlier this year. "Being born in a coastal South Carolina town, I had the pleasure of growing up around water ... Water affects light and color in subtle but alluring ways."
Rutenberg paints landscapes, woodlands, shining rivers, and dark shadows. But his work is not about the Lowcountry, only inspired by it. "I think it is more about the idea of ecstasy," he said, "not a euphoric emotion coming from looking, but that moment of heightened awareness that pushes us beyond the brushstrokes into a state of shared consciousness between artist and viewer."
All the work in the Gibbes' powerful new Tidesong show is abstract, so it can be interpreted in many ways. From a distance, some of the pieces look like brightly colored atlases, each state denoted with a different hue. Close up, layers of paint up to two and a half inches thick give the larger paintings a geological feeling of substance and weight, like overlapping tectonic plates. One tremor and it looks like those plates will shift, revealing another tier under that, and another beneath.
These are Rutenberg's representations of the layers in nature at a tiny detailed level, like the strata in the bark of a tree or the veins in a leaf. He doesn't gloss over the flawed beauty you'll find outdoors; he revels in it, depicting it with thick brushstrokes, drips, lumps, and scrapes.
Tidesong provides a good demonstration of why Rutenberg has built up such a following. It's full of color and vibrancy, attention to detail and a willingness to experiment. The most dramatic large-scale paintings like "Blue Point" (48" x 158") defy gravity with their heavy layers.
"Pavillion" is one of the most complex pieces on display, with many intersecting lines (often resembling tree trunks), watery reflections, and lighter colors to suggest sunshine tentatively penetrating the landscape. Rutenberg alternates thick and thinner layers to create dense shadow and pale light, and balances either side of the canvas with shady foliage.
In "The Fading" series, he shows a similar grasp of form and value, sending a honeyed ethereal light into a dark, moody abstract world. This series is the most emotive in the show because of the strong contrast between pessimistic shadow and positive luminescence.
Rutenberg doesn't always achieve his goal of making a conscious connection with the viewer. By choosing to leave the technical aspects of his work visible, he encourages us to admire them rather than losing ourselves in a picture. But he certainly evokes strong moods, from tranquility to hopefulness. Fans of his work will have to wait a while longer for him to figure out how to create the sense of higher awareness he's aiming for. All they need is a little patience.