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Installations - Steve Rucker




ART WITH A SMILE

01/17/02

By Thomas B. Harrison
Arts and Entertainment Editor
The Mobile Register

At first glance the room seems cluttered with wildly disparate icons,
the detritus of western culture: ceramic pencils, mirrors, piano keys,
floppy disks, dollar bills, musical notes, hamburgers, coffee cups,
religous symbols.

All are mounted on hand-coiled springs mounted on distinctive ceramic
stands in a counter-clockwise spriral moving outward from the black
Steinway that rests in the middle of the gallery.

The space is energized, alive with form, color and humor, and arranged
to compel a visitor to circumnavigate the display-- in one direction,
then another.

"Concerto Academe" is the work of W. Steve Rucker, a New Orleans-based
ceramic artist whose one-man exhibition opened Saturday at the Eichold
Gallery on the lovely campus of Spring Hill College. The opening
reception featured enhanced lighting and a performance by jazz pianist
Sanford Hinderlie, Rucker's faculty colleague at Loyola University.

The work will remain on view through Feb. 1, and Rucker will give a
slide show and walk-through at 7 p.m. Jan. 23.

Rucker's studio sits near the Mississippi River in the Carrollton
neighborhood of New Orleans. His Spring Hill installation is the
showcase event for the Eichold and gallery director Wanda Sullivan.

Not coincidentally, Rucker will judge the 11th annual "Art with a
Southern Drawl" juried competition in April at the University of Mobile.

A tall, bearded child of the 1960s, Rucker mentions the work of Claes
Oldenburg, who defied tradition as well as the abstract expressionists
and became synonymous with Pop Art. Like Oldenburg, who became known
for his giant food sculptures, Rucker believes in creating art
"environments" in unlikely or non-traditional settings.

Since 1981, he has taught ceramics, painting and drawing at Loyola
University and is acclaimed for his mixed-media installations and
site-specific works that blend a rapier-like wit with first-rate
craftsmanship.

For "Concerto Academe," Rucker took an idea from Sullivan, who gave him
the floor plans for the Eichold Gallery. Rucker noted the presence of a
piano, which inspired him to create the installation as a spiralling
vortex with the Steinway in the eye.

He created the ceramic bases, coiled the springs himself -- half of them
on Christmas Eve, the rest the day after Christmas. The ceramics were
packed and loaded into Rucker's pickup and a U-Haul trailer. The
artwork filled both vehicles.

He was assisted by his fiancee, Tracy Smoak, and former student, Chase
Austin V. His lighting technician was Heather Stickney of Loyola.

Rucker said his work is rooted in abstract expressionism and the rural
South, yet it also deals with "planes of intellectual poetry." That
much is evident in the 75 arrangements that dominate the room and is
more evident when one pauses to studey the individual components.

Triangular shards of mirror represent the triad of higher education:
science, art and philosophy; a cross symbolizes Christianity, while the
Yin-Yang symbol represents Eastern philosophy.

Everywhere, there is music. The black-and-white motif is an immediate
allusion to the keys of a piano; angular musical notes resemble cranes.

Rucker describes himself as a "country boy from Tennessee," but there is
much more than aw-shucks whimsy going on here. Yes, the work is clever
and amusing -- the coiled springs suggest Spring Hill -- and the
sprialing vortex of the installation certainly refers to a stellite view
of the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Those odd-looking capsules on
the floor are "smart pills."

But he also plays with words in imaginative ways, especially if a viewer
misses the worded messages the first couple of times around the room.
This is Rucker's peculiar take on the state of education in the new
millennium.

The usual symbols are in evidence -- pizza, computers, textbooks -- but
a new generation of college students has a language and habiliments of
its own.

"I'm sort of playfully addressing what we have come to and calling it
the way I see it," the artist said. "I even have to have a cell-phone
policy in my syllabi; turn 'em off in a lecture class. If it rings, it
better damn well be an emergency."

To his beginning students, Rucker hands a list of things to make without
using tools.

"You're dealing with your digits, this opposing thumb that made us
finally capable of having car keys," he said. (Hands) really are the
only tools you need. I use very few tools. . . .I just love making
something, rather quickly and spontaneously."

Rucker recalls the origins of his aesthetic credo. As a student at
Middle Tennessee State University in the '70s, he became interested in
transcendental meditation and vegetarianism. Each morning, he meditated
and pinched a three-quarter-pound lump of clay into a bowl. He pinched
10 bowls a day and never intended them to be functional. He ended up
with hundreds of bowls.

His professors were skeptical. "If you're gonna do this clay, you gotta
get more technical," they said. "You gotta learn more about kilns,
firing, the science of clay, the science of glazes."

Technical, technical, technical. Rucker said he "never had too much
trouble with inspiration -- the ideas were always there." He was an
avid journal keeper and always kept his notebooks handy.

"All those little pich-pots became a way for me to focus on one type of
ceramic approach that originated in 16th -century Japan, called raku."
he said. "but I wanted simply to go through the motions of firing all
those pieces and then do something with it, which led me to placing them
in sculptural arrangements somewhere on the campus and just leave them
to see what would happen."

"Of course, after a day or two the fraternities usually couldn't stand
it," he said. "They rearranged them, broke them or stole them -- no
disrespect to the Greek system."

"But it became kind of fun to bring art 'out of the gallery.' I really
began working X number hours a week on multiples or. . . placing (art)
at a specific site outdoors, in a barn or somewhere, and hopefully
getting a friend or somebody to come see them."

The vernacular response to Rucker's art is: "What the hell is it?" But
his art elicits another kind of response too.

As Rucker neared completion of the Eichold installation, sculptor Pieter
Favier dropped by with his children. Favier's 11 - year - old daughter
Hannah reached into her school backpack, pulled out her camera and stood
on a ledge. She waved her dad out of the way and began snapping photos.

"This is great!" she said.

"She didn't need an explanation," said Rucker, beaming. "I could look
in her eyes and immediately it made sense to her. Now, that's as good
as it gets."

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