Two exhibits now on view at Form & Concept — Rebecca Rutstein: Fault Lines and Jared Weiss: He’s Either Dead or It Was His Birthday — explore internal and external worlds through a lens of abstraction. Basing her work on scientific data and observances, Rutstein takes elements of her research and recontextualizes them in paintings that explore motion, line, color, and form. Jared Weiss works from memory, or rather the lack thereof, exploring the phenomena of screen memories in a vibrant exhibition of paintings of scenes of daily life, much of it autobiographical, where not everything that’s happening is as it seems. Pasatiempo spoke with the artists about the exhibitions that opened on June 30.

Maths and diagrams: Rebecca Rutstein 

Geology has been a longtime interest of artist Rebecca Rutstein — including geothermal regions, ocean floors, and desert sands. In 2016, Rutstein completed two residencies through the Artist-at-Sea program of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, one in February and one in June. The experiences tie together themes she has explored with new work on view in her solo exhibit. “I’ve done a lot of land-based residencies in the past where I was learning about different geologic regions and then doing site-specific art projects on them,” Rutstein said. “But this is the first time that I was actually able to work side-by-side with scientists and really collaborate with them. It was groundbreaking for me to be at sea on a scientific research vessel and working with the live data we were collecting.”

Rutstein is exhibiting several large-scale paintings of transparent, undulating forms composed of geometric linear patterns at Form & Concept. The show also features a sculptural installation of forms derived from elements in her paintings. These abstract two- and three-dimensional works reference some of the tools used in contemporary geologic and oceanographic fieldwork, such as sonar mapping, but not in an overt way. Rutstein’s past residencies included projects in Canada, Iceland, and Hawaii. She discusses her pieces at Form & Concept as a culmination of the evolution her work has gone through over time. “Every residency had an important impact on my work and my process,” she said. She was working with data from her layman’s research into biology and geology early in her career, but the artwork was more representational then. “I had more recognizable imagery in the paintings. There was a little bit of whimsy in them, as well. But they were definitely referencing geology. In the Hawaii residency, I did a bunch of these small paintings that were depicting different aspects of the terrain and how the volcanoes were formed. I did a helicopter ride over an active volcano. I caved through lava tubes — if you’re claustrophobic, I don’t recommend it. But I then took the maps of the lava tubes, and that became a backdrop for an installation of paintings.”

In Hawaii, Rutstein studied how the island state was formed and came across sonar maps of the ocean floor showing the formation of a new seamount. “That struck my curiosity, and I started thinking about what was going on on the ocean floor,” she said. “There was a segue while I had two children and couldn’t really travel, so I started thinking about the ocean floor in a more imaginative way, and I did projects that were more research based. Fast-forward to 2012, and I did another land-based residency in Iceland. The geology there is very interesting because there’s glaciers and volcanoes — you’ve got everything there.”

Rutstein’s art projects and residencies have led her on a series of adventures that have had an impact on her painting practice in conceptual ways. “It all ties back together to when I was invited on to the research vessel. The scientists were traveling from the Galápagos Islands to California and mapping out the ocean floor. It was an opportunity for me to go back to my interest in it. It was a really exciting moment. We had this high-resolution screen, and we were seeing images from the ocean floor that no one had ever seen. I was using the data to create paintings, but those are not the paintings in this show.”

Once aboard the research vessel, she had trouble maintaining detail and precision when painting because of the movement of the ship. She had to develop a looser, more impromptu approach to avoid struggling against the swaying motion. “I started pouring the paint on the canvas and letting it disperse. We were trailing a hurricane in the East Pacific. It was very rocky and exciting, but a little more exciting than we would have liked. Instead of fighting it, I had this moment where I was like, let me just pour the paint and see. The motion of the ship would guide the paint, and it was sort of a record of the ship’s motion. On top of that, I was superimposing the sonar data. The new work does hearken back to this spontaneous development that happened at sea.”

The paintings at Form & Concept are based more on land formations than on oceanic research, but a painting called Slanted and Enchanted seems fluid, as though it shows an underwater seascape, with a chain-link pattern of distorted hexagonal forms floating throughout the composition. “That was the last painting I did for the show, and I had a little breakthrough,” Rutstein said. “I had worked with those open-hexagon chain forms before, but I warped them in this painting to create more movement. It was originally horizontal, and then I turned it vertical and it just spoke to me. It does have a really fluid feeling to it.”

Other works such as Fault Lines and Still Dreaming show amorphous shapes described by linear, triangular patterns. “A lot of the sonar data I was collecting — these maps had a wire-frame grid, and sometimes they took on a tetrahedral grid pattern. That’s how they originated, these forms in my paintings.”

Hidden selves: Jared Weiss 

“The man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth.” — Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) 

Memory is a tricky thing. Like an artwork in progress, it is a concoction, a living, evolving well of imagery that points, perhaps, to true events but also ones that have been filtered through the experiences that came after. Memories are altered in the mind without our conscious knowledge, conforming to some vision we have of ourselves. New memories mask old ones and keep some truth from revealing itself. Maybe you remember an autumn day and the bright foliage of turning leaves. You don’t remember the individual trees, but the colors stand out. The autumn color is an element that painter Jared Weiss might amplify in his work, intentionally overemphasizing its vividness the way the mind would, for the purpose of recall. “A big way that we remember is through exaggeration,” he said. “Things get caricaturized in a lot of ways. So if you meet someone with red hair, what you remember is bright red hair or something like that. You exaggerate so it sticks out, so that you can remember it.”

Weiss is interested in memory as a subject, but more specifically in the phenomena of screen memories. “A screen memory is basically when something that’s too intense for you to process happens and, as a defense mechanism, you repress that memory and you take other memories that are similar but much more agreeable to you psychologically and you collage over the first memory and effectively hide it from yourself,” he said. Weiss aims for a similar conflation of images and ideas in his work and structures them like screen memories, inspired by an essay on the topic by Sigmund Freud. “He’s writing it around the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s kind of an idea that he abandons but that a lot of other people pick up and use in their theory.”

In addition to Freud, the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek have further influenced the direction of Weiss’s painting practice. “Lacan was what they call a structuralist,” he said. “He was after Freud, writing primarily from the ’40s to the ’60s. A structuralist, in very simple terms, is like someone who takes the unconscious and examines it as if it was a language. One of Lacan’s famous sayings is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Freud was starting to get into these ideas at the end of his life. Lacan dove into it with an almost clinical perspective. Žižek really takes after Lacan, who is, in a lot of ways, really difficult to read. Žižek takes Lacan and examines culture, basically. These are the three big guys in my thinking about the work.”

In Weiss’ paintings, background details as well as the facial features of people are often distorted, blurred, or otherwise abstracted, though not so much that you can’t get a sense of what they are. In I Was Saying It Outright, vibrant blue, pink, and magenta hues color the landscape that is rendered in an expressionistic style with flashes of blood red appearing throughout the composition. Three figures at the side of a winding road are turned into each other as though studying something small one of them seems to be holding, leaving the viewer on the outside, wanting to peer over their shoulders at whatever small treasure they’re looking at. “It has an artificial quality to it,” Weiss said of the painting. “Certain things are heightened to the point of being unreal, but that hearkens back to how we process memories. There’s usually some thing the characters are engaged in — they’re focused on that thing, but it’s a thing that the audience can’t see. I really like when there’s this action, and something’s in the way so you can’t get to the action. It goes back to this idea that you think you’re seeing something but it’s covering up what you really want to see. Well, that’s not really — people most likely don’t want to see the things they’ve repressed from themselves.”

In Although Not Loud, three people are gathered around a table laden with wine bottles and plates of food. Most of the background imagery is nonexistent, and the figures are surrounded by white. Details, like the food on the plates, the wine labels, and other objects on the table, are abstracted and rendered with quick and loose brush strokes. The image appears like a memory only half-remembered. The title — like all of Weiss’ titles — is nonsensical in that it wasn’t chosen to match what’s happening in the scene, but it isn’t random, either. Each title in the exhibition is derived from a line by one of the psychoanalysts and philosophers who have influence the direction of his work.

There is also a coalescing of form and shape in the paintings where aspects jump out with a dreamlike sense of realism. His paintings appear to be rendered wet-on-wet and recall works by early 20th-century figure painters like Robert Henri, but Weiss tends to balance realism with abstraction, using abstraction to reinforce the conceptual aspects of the compositions. “I want to paint to represent some image, but I also want the paint to stay paint,” he said. “I like the joy of the material.”

Weiss treats the surface of the painting as a stage where small dramas from the psyche play out, and he takes semblances of places he’s lived and combines them with elements from other places, or fills the scene with people who were never there. Part  of the work is personal, meant to trigger recognition of his own repressed memories. “I, for some reason, feel an inclination that I very much want to see those things,” he said. “I’m fascinated by how repression functions and why it functions. That’s really the project. I want to find out what I’ve hidden from myself.”   ◀

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