Animal magnetism
by Paul Smart
October 23, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I have curated an art show opening at the Kleinert/James Arts Center in Woodstock this Saturday night, October 24, featuring a series of monumental new abstract paintings by Peggy Cyphers - many painted during creative tenures at the Byrdcliffe Colony and surrounding cloves - and the life-sized mythologizing ceramic sculptures by Kathy Ruttenberg, a Woodstock artist whose evocative work graced the windows of the annual Macy's Garden Show in New York a couple of years ago. Need I tell you that it's fabulous? Or just explain why I've decided to add to my usual workload by doing this?

The exhibition's being called "Animal Spirits I," utilizing the name of Cyphers' latest series as a means of acknowledging both artists' source material in the world of the undomesticated. And yes, it also sets the stage for a further exploration of regionally based or inspired artists who utilize the Catskills' and Hudson River's natural habitat, as well as non-human elements, to mirror animal "feelings."

The idea came to me last winter when I saw Cyphers' works in her downtown Manhattan studio and immediately recognized the imagery of Platte Clove and other upstate locations in her abstractions' colors and brushstrokes, as well as her compositions. "These paintings need to be seen in the context of their inspiration," I thought. And immediately, I figured that they would play well off, and with, Ruttenberg's deeply personal and similarly wild sculptures, which come from similar terrain.

The back window of the Kleinert will be opened for this exhibition, allowing the natural backdrop of gnarled branches and dusky seasonal light to accentuate what I envisioned last winter: two artists utilizing the heights of their creativity to explore deep truths about our fragile humanity, the wildness of our cultural worlds. It seemed perfect, as well, given that the show will be running from just before Halloween to just after Thanksgiving.

"Numerous commingling voices of species play in these dialogues," writes Cyphers, who has been a mainstay of the New York art scene, as both a painter and writer, since the heady East Village days of the early 1980s. "Abstract forms operate in a psychological dialogue of association: congestion and vast span, hyperspeed and recognizable icon. My work is Automatic Writing, a stream of consciousness within geological, primordial and cultural time. Brushmark and pours dominate it with homage to American Abstraction and Chinese, Zen and Navaho sand paintings."

In an earlier life, Cyphers was taken under the wing of the great critic Clement Greenberg - Pollock's champion - and studied with Louise Bourgeois. She will be opening a new exhibition in San Francisco simultaneous to the Animal Spirits' run.

"My work is an expression of inner landscapes fueled by a need to understand, explore and excavate. The subject matter is personal and universal as I strive to find the humanity in the absurd, and search to express the elements of profound emotional states that twist us inside and often put us in unpredictable situations," Ruttenberg has written of her own art. "The tools for my work are fire, earth and emotions; this mix makes an interesting cocktail of allegory and symbolism with an odd twist of Nature. In my world where the wind blows with intensity, animals and humans often share the moment depicted."

In addition to her sculpture - showing regularly in New York, Los Angeles and other galleries around the country - Ruttenberg recently published a book of her art, Wild Thing, and is initiating new lines of jewelry and rugs from her designs. She will be showing in Chicago simultaneously to her Woodstock premiere.

"We examine a painting called Bird Cliff. Air and water and rock become interchangeable as we watch. It's as if a three-foot-by-five-foot section of your bedroom wall were made of mist. The indeterminate lighting creates a vertiginous sensation, like being carried off by a swooping eagle," writes the poet/critic Sparrow in a catalogue that I've produced for Cyphers for this show. "The imagery in this canvas could be cliffs - or else the high buildings in her windows. Does each of her pieces combine the five Chinese elements? I wonder. I behold patterns that could be the grain in wood, or fossils, or architectural detail - or all three at once... Is it my imagination, or is visiting her canvases making me smarter?"

"Animals and people intertwine in Kathy's life, as they do in her work," the same author writes in a corresponding catalogue for Ruttenberg, also produced for this show. "Have you ever read The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales? In it, you'll find obscure stories like 'The Maid of Brakel' or 'Clever Grethel.' Ruttenberg's sculptures are like scenes from these nearly lost tales. In her work, whimsy and humor meet the narrow malevolence of dreams. The women in her tableaux seek Nature, but also fear it. They are in a tension between rapture and revolt...Our human soul prevents us from closing our eyes and kissing the Beast."

In addition to several large floor pieces filling the Kleinert's gallery space, Ruttenberg will be hanging ceramic sculptures from the gallery's rafters, while Cyphers makes the walls flow with her 70- and 90-inch-tall paintings, all focused on the opened back windows of the key Guild exhibition and performance space.

"Both artists like to address the surfaces of what they do with palettes and processes, uses of mirror effects, repetitive iconography - as well as what they've been reading, observing, listening to or experiencing at the time they're working: the litany of thoughts that fuel a series, making its aesthetic choices logical, or at least understandable," is how I put it in the press releases sent out for this show. "On deeper levels, both women talk, outside their actual artworks, about man's onslaught on Nature, about the many ecological battles we must prepare to fight over the coming years. And yet, by the time these matters have been distilled into their paintings and sculptures, they've simplified and gained resonance by being personalized. We recall what it is to pet the cat, hold the dog, learn from the birds. And in those simple actions is the prototype, they seem to insist - in their individual channeling of deep Animal Spirits, for how we should treat all things we meet in the world. Brought together, their art is powerful and provocative, evocative and inspirational."

I guess I'd have to say I did it all as a labor of love of both these artists' art - just as I must say that I'm already looking forward to doing "Animal Spirits II," possibly this time next year: same place, same channel, as they say.

This exhibition of Peggy Cyphers' paintings and Kathy Ruttenberg's sculpture, "Animal Spirits I," opens this Saturday, October 24 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Arts Gallery, just off the Village Green in Woodstock, and stays up through November 29. Stay tuned for a gallery talk event the weekend before Thanksgiving. For further information call (845) 679-2079 or visit

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