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Good Painting Is Pure Magic

Painter Brian Rutenberg talks about his definition of ecstasy

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Brian Rutenberg is a New York artist who grew up in the Lowcountry and trained at the College of Charleston. On Friday, he returns to CofC to talk to students and sign a new book that collects some of his best works. He wrote to City Paper via e-mail to talk about the influence of the Lowcountry on his painting, the role of faith in his sensibility, and advice for young artists.

Charleston City Paper: Your earlier work is very different from that in your book.

Brian Rutenberg: From 1987-1992, my work was more about structure and less about color. I was looking at a lot of Cubists, especially George Braque and Juan Gris, which required me to suppress my love of color and focus more on dark and lights. When I moved to New York City in 1987, right after graduating from the College of Charleston, I began questioning the notion of what a painting was, rectangular and two dimensional. My work has always addressed nature and the landscape, but never in a literal way. The breakthrough came in 1992 when I won a grant to travel to Italy for a month and indulge my love of Baroque art. Back in New York, I received another grant that gave me studio space for a year in TriBeCa. It was in that year that I honed everything down into one concise body of work that became "River Paintings" and comprised my New York solo debut at Cavin-Morris Gallery. That show put me on the map.

CCP: What is it about the Lowcountry that grips your imagination?

BR: Being born in a coastal South Carolina town, I had the pleasure of growing up around water. My childhood was spent on the beach, sketching beside rivers and creeks, fishing in lakes, and daydreaming on little boats in Murrell's Inlet. Water affects light and color in subtle but alluring ways. The idea of place is closely tied to our identity as South Carolinians, especially in the Lowcountry. My imagination was formed there, and my love of the Carolina landscape was fully internalized by the time I moved to New York.

CCP: There's a feeling of animism, or perhaps pantheism, in your work.

BR: Pantheism has always interested me, and I believe visual art is an affirmation of life expressed through the sheer transformative power of looking. My interest lies in the internalized idea of landscape. Every landscape painting implies the solitary human figure, someone standing in a fixed position gazing out at a place. In this way, the painted landscape is as much about who we are on the inside as what we see on the outside. A painting is simply an externalization of an inner life. When I use vertical strands in my compositions, they always refer to both figures and trees that stand in opposition to the horizon line. That vertical/horizontal dance is one of the most fundamental concepts in art.

CCP: Can you talk about your process?

BR: I can't overemphasize the importance of drawing for painters. Even though my drawings have no obvious compositional relationship to the paintings (I don't make preliminary sketches), the act of rendering the 3-D world on a 2-D surface requires rigorous adherence to tradition, and I feel like I can't break rules until I know rules.

As with many artists, the notion of the universal is born in the local. I tap into the place where my imagination was born as a springboard for investigating larger concepts. My work is not about the Lowcountry. I think it is more about the idea of ecstasy. My definition of ecstasy is 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. We project our vitality onto the painted surface, and time disappears. Through the brush, we share the same spontaneous sensations that the artist felt when the picture was painted.

CCP: What have been your most salient learning experiences and why?

BR : Hmm. Here are some random thoughts:

• I am glad that I went to a liberal arts college, because I got a taste of everything. This makes one a better artist.

• I live in New York City for the same reason. I am basically interested in everything, and I want it on my doorstep.

• I learned long ago not to take myself too seriously, but I take art very, very seriously.

• I am nice to everyone I meet, because what goes around comes around.

• My richest learning experience was becoming a husband and father. That gave my work a breadth and sensitivity I had not thought possible. When I look at my book, I can see a change from 1999 onward.

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