“Of Pencils, Fish & Thinking,” The New Orleans Art Review



Leave it to W. Steve Rucker to transform a still and sterile gallery into a tank teeming with colorful fish and jumbo pencils, so very reminiscent of the playful non-team of Disney and Oldenburg, respectively. No doubt Rucker is thinking about many things in his environmental Think Tank in the Arthur Roger Gallery Project space housed in the glitzy Renaissance Hotel down on Tchoupitoulas. One of those thoughts must be the verbal juxtaposition of a school of fish in one half of the gallery, and a school classroom symbolized by those oversized, no. 2 pencils. Both the fish and pencils are made of brightly glazed clay, each held jauntily in place atop steel spirals anchored by floral, clay feet.

Of course, Rucker doesn’t stop there. No, the man with ponytail and bandana head-wrap continues with a floor full of mirror tiles, plus a really large, largemouth bass ostensibly coming through a freestanding wall of the gallery. Naturally, the no. 2 pencils are also seen, larger than life, protruding through the wall, red and yellow ones, enough to make any First grader wince at the prospect of the accompanying sheet of paper. The effect is not unlike stepping into a zany cartoon, and really, this outing for Rucker is apparently a fun one. Rucker goes in for backslapping humor, thus another wall of the gallery presents a blues song, penciled directly onto the surface in a spiral formation that is pierced by a cartoon of a pencil.

I personally don’t know if even Howlin’ Wolf could turn the words of this song into a soulful Blues, but most white men would have a hard time competing with such a legend. And though it’s not the song that we should concern ourselves with, it requires a mention because the words are such that they add a bit of blight to a handsome exhibit that has all the Rucker trimmings. I mean, do we need to know that some folk think the artist has it made teaching at Loyola? What lawyer or doctor would think that, as he or she sets out to catch one of the little floor fish for $100.00?

The word outrageous comes to mind when one hears the name Rucker, and while skateboarding has its Xtreme side, Rucker is equally extreme when it comes to dealing with an idea. A person has to abandon all preconceived notions of how an installation is to be interpreted. It’s not easy to walk around the low-lying fish and pencils and glass multiples, nor to avoid walking into the big block letters poised in black atop a gallery partition. These spell-out the show’s title, and are sold individually for $40.00 each. Now that”s a little weird, kind of like buying a vowel, though there are only two, which wouldn’t help much on “Wheel of Fortune.”

Anyway, it’s not so much the letters that count in “Think Tank,” but the thought, and from other sources quoting Rucker, it seems he was also thinking of fish as brain food, which would certainly help in the classroom. But these considerations aside, Rucker is a teacher, and he has long asserted his interest in conserving the environment. His methods have always been askew. Years ago Rucker went to the trouble of erecting very tall, rustic towers in various parts of the South, then shot flaming arrows into the hay filled tops.

Undoubtedly, “Think Tank’s” intent is to prompt us to envision all creatures as being in the same tank, the same, interconnected world. The installation also must aim to alert us to the fact that education does not stop in the classroom, though for most people, it does. By being oblivious to the presence of the fishes hidden beneath nearby waters, we are inviting our own demise. Rucker places the fish swimming with a purpose as paralleling the often vague purpose of children in a classroom. How will learning the presidents’ names help save the whale, the tuna, or stop us from killing children in Iraq and at home.

Rucker is a master of the absurd, even the irrational. But much of society is based on the illogical, and whatever a child has learned in school can have no basis in the “real” world. The rules all change as soon as children are no longer minors. It becomes legal to harass and kill in the name of country, and illegal to do so without government backing.

There is also the possibility that Rucker is questioning his own role as teacher and what effect teaching Art has on his students’ lives. Art begins with an idea, a thought, and proceeds with revealing that thought to influence many, by changing one”s perception and by creating more thought in a neglected mind. America has been a complacent land, content to carry on under the guise of well-being. The danger of our complacency is ringing louder these days, and the schoolroom may be one of the last havens for freedom of thought, to some extent. Of course we know now that even the schoolroom is vulnerable to fatal lunacy.

If Rucker wants us to think, about something, about anything, then surely he has succeeded. By placing the clay objects in a manner we cannot ignore, if only for fear of stepping on them, we cannot help but relate the zaniness to something, unsuspecting as we are.