“I know what I want to make art about” artist Chad Rutter said. “The themes stay consistent, though the media may change. Along a circuitous path I picked up a skill set, and have made myself a broad tool bag.”
Chad Rutter grew up on a family farm near Osceola, Nebraska. Six years of doing graphic design in Omaha became an impetus to return to school and pursue a degree in art. In 2006 Rutter received an interdisciplinary BFA from the Minneapolis School of Art and Design, and in 2010 an MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota.
“When I was 10 years old I went to Yellowstone and the Black Hills with my uncle and brother,” Rutter said in a recent interview. “Mt. Rushmore was big and impressive. I wondered why they didn’t remove the rubble from the bottom. This set me up to visit different landscapes and land formations. I started doing road trips in grad school and finding things to make work about. Tourism in the American landscape develops out of a nation building rhetoric. You’re a tourist where you live.”
Rutter recently completed his “circuitous path” by returning to Nebraska in the debut exhibition Boats on Land at Omaha’s newest art venue, Peerless Gallery in the Midtown Crossing, 31st and Farnam Streets. Gallery organizers Caleb Coppock, Daphne Eck and Bethany Kalk invited Rutter to treat the experience as a mini-residency.
“Peerless Gallery and Worksite is an experiment and hope for the future” said Eck. “Caleb and I started thinking about this three years ago; to have a place that is totally energizing and inspiring, where resources are not wasted. How could we have access to more people, more tools, and work larger? We want great conversations and to dream with others about what the space can be. There’s a network of mutual support. The energy feels so good.”
Wooden sculptures, black and white wall drawings, and scanned land photographs are three strands of an idea presented in the front gallery in Boats on Land. The first are the wooden sculptures from Rutter’s MFA thesis show, inspired by information kiosks in state and national parks, and foot paths constructed in the parks. Objects on the presentation pedestals are souvenirs, such as coal from Pennsylvania or an Interstate pylon. The largest sculpture is designed as a path, displaying fool’s gold at one end and a large chunk of coal at the other. The discerning gallery go-er might enjoy a comparison of Rutter’s “wooden path” to Peter Goche’s “hutch” now at the Bemis. The “hutch” is also a wooden work consisting of a line, referring to Midwestern waterways.
In musing on how the land of a working farm becomes actively shaped by production and debris, Rutter learned to “never separate junk from beauty.” He reflected further on his process. “The general theme is our relationship to land. How does it form us? How do we form it? How do we deal with place? The first image I use in my artist talk is an image of the pasture of the farm where I grew up. It is a large half-mile square; the place where I played; learned to cut thistles, cedar trees, and repair fences.
Rutter arrived two weeks before the exhibition opened, and with some help created several large wall drawings, plus two on panel. “I got over having my hand do everything” he said. “It’s a matter of time.” In the past year Rutter received an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Rutter will use it to have his first solo artist book published. Scenes from the Great American Non-Site, is a compilation of photographs of Interstate architectural embankments.
It’s based on the idea of looking at the Interstate as an earthworks piece. “I love artist books,” Rutter said, “especially coming out of a graphic design background. My practice has shifted toward making artist books. The book is a perfect place to do different strands of media. It can be drawings, or paintings. The idea is still the idea. The media of the piece becomes a book you can hold in your hand. There are five distinct books I’m involved in developing now.”
The large black and white wall drawings, the second strand of the exhibition, are based on a second book project, The Pacific Tourist Redux, a collaboration with writer Emily Roehl, presently at the University of Texas, Austin. She will be contributing the text portion of The Pacific Tourist Redux. The original The Pacific Tourist: Illustrated Trans-Continental Guide of Travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, edited by Henry T. Williams in 1877, contains small black and white etchings featuring bearded men in scenic locations.
Rutter scanned the etchings of people and places in the landscape, then digitally collaged parts together to create new graphic representations. The drawing’s black and white contrast clearly represents a part of a mountain, or a segment of beard. The parts out of context are not easily identifiable, making “curiosity” the drawing’s subject. The scale variation of each adds interest to the overall installation.
The third strand of the exhibition, and a third book to be developed, are the scanned land photographs. Rutter is documenting various tourist sites with a flat bed scanner. He did Council Bluffs near the Missouri River for the Peerless exhibition. The shallow depth of field, enlargement of small detail, and flattening of information by the scanner’s glass become part of the image capturing a relationship of earth to place.
The theoretical constructions of place are important for this artist. A Critical Theory class at MCAD was his introduction to Martin Heidegger’s Building Thinking Dwelling, 1951. “It wasn’t easy to understand at first” he said. “But the parts I did get started to make sense, like my relationship to land. I like theory quite a bit. The writing of Henri LeFebvre and his lengthy theory about homogenizing, and differential space, relate to my understanding of federal versus local attitudes to the physical realities of land and place management.” The writings of Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-U.S. humanistic geographer and emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, enlarged his understanding of American suburbs, Rutter added.
The three strands of sculpture, drawing, and photo in Rutter’s exhibition conceptually complement one another. A smaller group exhibit in the back adds to the conversation with work featuring graphite monotypes by Ryan MacIntyre, galvanized steel chairs by Eric Fescenmeyer, mixed media constructions by Josie Lewis, mixed media drawings by Emily Smith, graphite on vellum by Mitchell Dose, painting and drawing by Kim Reid Kuhn, drawings by Allegra Lockstadt, drawings by Eric Carlson, and graphite drawing by Caleb Coppock. Within the total installation is an invitation for the viewer to re-evaluate their own understanding and experience of space, place, and land.
This first exhibition for Peerless seems a good fit, given their mission as “art gallery and worksite devoted to collaborative thought and creative action.”