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Installations 1982-2000
Steve Rucker

Three Strong Shows make Good Use of
'Installation' Concept
by Chris Waddington

Anything goes in today's art world - and frequently the first thing to go are the distinctions between painting, sculpture, architecture and other traditional disciplines. The resulting cross-breeds are tagged with the vague label of "installation art", and encompass works whose only shared purpose is the attempt to create a total, theatrical environment from the sanitized spaces of the contemporary gallery.

It's an impulse with deep roots in Western Art - from the site-specific sculptural programs of Baroque churches to the domestic interiors of Victorian designer William Morris. That impulse takes new forms in a trio of fine, summer exhibitions in the Warehouse Arts District.

Clay gardens

Trained as a ceramicist; Steve Rucker has stretched the bounds of his craft for years, shaping environments that reflect his obsession with the Southern landscape - and the serial nature of industrial ceramic production. His remarkable show at Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St., include two room-size installations and a suite of related paintings.

"Hot House" fills the lofty front room of the gallery with seven rows of terracotta pots, each dangling above yellow light bars that bevel the floor like high-tech furrows. Angling across the rectangular room, those rows seem to push at the walls, engaging the whole space in a dynamic relationship. Rucker also harnesses gravity to expressive ends, hanging upside-down pots on steel cables that stretch from the ceiling. Those taut verticals lead one's eye downward to wire plants that branch from the pots and strain toward the lights below them.

But Rucker hasn't simply created a formal approximation of the forces that exist in nature. He has turned his greenhouse upside down in an effort to reveal the strange fruits of Southern society. Here his plants blossom with guns, hot peppers, pharmaceutical gel-caps, rolled dollar bills, green leaves that curl upward like beggar's hands, and mirror fragments that evoke the broken glass decoration found on folk shrines from the Congo to Mississippi.

As one circles the piece, fresh views and details appear: plunging aisles and blocked vistas; clay pencils that curves like bananas caught in a dance; repetitions like those in a product-crammed Walmart display; and the constant glint of mirror fragment giving the piece a kinetic aspect.

A second installation fills the gallery tiny back room. Here Rucker also evokes the world of gardening, having planted rows of stand-up, ceramic letters on the floor, then cutting across those rows with banded fluorescent tubes that illuminate his phrases actually have a poetic ring, a child's garden of rhyme (and schoolyard chants) springing from the floor to evoke an "agriculture horticulture fertilizer stew."

Rucker calls the piece "Subverse", but it could be retitled "Subversive" for its sly take on New Orleans gardening. Here the proverbs have us trying "a little bit of rhythm a little bit of rain", since we're "gonna grow groceries for the well to do."

Rucker's paintings actually seem closer to traditional ceramic concerns than his installations. His glossy, richly worked surfaces evoke the textures of pottery glazes, while his churning landscape imagery seems fitted to his oddly shaped panels in the same manner that a potter adapts surfaces designs to the shape of a vessel.

Painting or Sculpture?

Emulating the nature that appears in so much of her imagery, artist Beverly Fishman scatters her gifts prodigally, covering the walls of Heriard-Cimino Gallery, 440 Julia St., with clusters of low relief disks that bear photographic images of stars and cells, and luminous abstract paint.

Some of her constellations spread across 30 square feet and contain about 100 separate elements, each place with a template on the vast emptiness of the wall; others are composed of a dozen clustered elements, squeezed tightly as cells in living tissue. But whether viewed as cells or stars, Fishman's work underscores the similarities between the building blocks of nature and the circular blocks that compose her creations. Like nature itself, her work seems in flux, ready to metastasize into new and larger configurations - or to break away into single cells that hold their own as elegant presences.

By admitting the world into her work - in the form of heavily manipulated photographs - this abstract artist put her designs in a larger intellectual context even as she enriches the vocabulary of textures and shapes from which she spins painterly improvisations. This lets her avoid the decorative dead-end encountered by less accomplished abstract artist.

Vernacular Vision

Sculptor Neil Harshfield often uses glass in his creations, but only pays glancing homage to the medium's tradition of functional crafts. A few years ago, for example, he created nostalgically charged sculptures by "repairing" old garden tools and farm equipment, adding glass tines to a rake, a glass bed to a wheelbarrow.

In his new show at Still-Zinsel Gallery, 328 Julia St., Harshfield extends that interest in vernacular forms to chairs, sandbags, and language itself, creating settings for glass tea cups etched with transitive verbs: "father", "mother", "bank", "foster" and other words that have ambiguous meanings when taking outside the context of a sentence. In "Bank", for example, his text-etched teacups seats atop a bank of hundreds of tiny sandbags which he has banked against the wall. For those who haven't moved fully into the era of electronic banking, the piece is also a fine, theatrical evocation of the loot stacked in banks. Works such as this wouldn't look out of place in a staging of some anti-capitalist parable by Bertolt Brecht.

Harshfield's other works take a less punning approach to language. In "Foster", for example, the word appears on a teacup that sits atop an exaggeratedly tall chair. Here Harshfield implies that chairs, like people, may only grow by being fostered, but he also creates a potent image of the isolate place of the foster child, set apart in a high chair against the gallery wall.

After three strong shows in New Orleans, it's clear that Harshfield is emerging as a strong regional talent, who moves freely from intellectual word play to the emotional force that a real object maker can conjure. His work looks good beside that of veterans such as Rucker and national talents such as Fishman. With luck, New Orleans will see more from all three artists.

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