Talking Art and Music
Installation Artist W. Steve Rucker Creates Imaginative, Playful and Humorous Work
by Debra Kronowitz, ART NEW ORLEANS
Inspired by the Southern landscape, the work of visionary “outsiders,” agriculture, social and environmental ironies, New Orleans artist W. Steve Rucker specializes in creating imaginative installations. Although schooled primarily in ceramics, Rucker refers to himself as an installation artist. Most of his heroes were and remain painters, sculptors and writers.
With a strong connection to the crafts tradition, particularly ceramics, Rucker’s sculptures, paintings and installations have become less formal and more narrative. Audio tapes and self-penned and produced songs have become an integral part of his art over the years. His work tends to be regionally specific as is his music. “What results is an ongoing look at ceramics in conjunction with various materials, usually addressing the ephemeral, that points a finger at the givings and misgivings in this land of plenty,” Rucker said.
As a child, Rucker was always “fiddling” with drawing. A third-grade teacher recognized his talent and became his mentor, letting him paint with her old oil paints. Always on the edge of marketability, Rucker’s installations and drawings connect to his life experiences, yet appear to be sporadic expressions that expand on an idea of getting art on the floor. His work is socially and politically inspired.
“Garden Party, for example, is ceramic on steel. It filled the floor with water spiders and represented the death of the American farmer. It was also a private tribute to the passing of my father,” Rucker explained. “Hot House was created at a time when local and national politics and our environment were headed south, and I don’t mean in the South of the country. Ten years later, people are still talking about it … maybe ”time” finishes the tale.”
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
Originally from southeast Tennessee, Rucker has been drawn to and overwhelmed by the Mississippi River. “It is powerful, filthy, rich with history and full of industrial
choreography. Not quite what I had envisioned via Huckleberry Finn. Yet it demands a kind of respect; I still walk along, gather and work near it today,” he said.
In addition to ceramics and mixed media, Rucker incorporates the use of mirrors and music in his work. He does so to bring the viewer into the work and uses the light to envelope the artwork. “My work heavily relies on gesture, rhythm and at times, a theme with variations,” he explained. In the beginning, his installations used audio and sound effects. In the early 1990s, he broke away from pre-recorded audio to live performances during his exhibits. “Amazing contemporary artists were using audio in the 1970s. I moved from sound effects to personally written songs that I performed,” he said.
Another deliberate in his work is displacing the viewer. “They are forced to step back or walk around as opposed to standing in the middle of a piece of artwork that may be traditionally hung on a wall,” he explained.
“Steve thinks in grandiose ideas. He is not a conventional artist. He has some of the most imaginative and ambitious work we’ve shown; yet, it is also playful and has a strong sense of humor. His work has a way of entertaining you and making you think,” said Arthur Roger, owner of Arthur Roger Gallery.
New Orleans continues to stimulate and haunt Rucker. “The river, the music, the Caribbean culture and the Bohemian lifestyle stimulate me; the remnants of Katrina and the crime haunt me,” he said. Having to stay on guard and alert has simultaneously heightened his sensitivity to social, political and basic urban survival skills and “ills.”
Presently, Rucker is working on two installations slated to be in the Arthur Roger Gallery in 2009. Storm Song Variations will be a floor installation made of ceramic and steel rods. “It’s being birthed, crowned,” Rucker said. “I love the challenge and the fear of creating these large multi-year installations. In my mind, I am always wondering if this will be visually impactful for me and the viewing public. I begin these journeys with my pants down, so to speak-sketches appear and I decide if they are worthy to invest the time and sweat equity.”
The artwork will be a spiraling vortex, free standing and elevated. It will be made of 50 ceramic slabs – no two alike – that will each receive three sockets. The face of the slab is an abstract expressionist painting. “It is a spiraling freeze-frame of the chaos of Katrina and its aftermath, yet it will be highly colorful, romantic and playful.
Art doesn’t always need to look pretty and make you feel good,” Rucker said.
The second installation, Holding My Own, is a self-portrait made up of a body of tightly rendered pencil drawings that will be framed and hung traditionally. In each drawing Rucker is holding something personally significant.
Rucker has taught ceramics at Loyola University since 1981 and is currently an associate professor. He received his master of fine arts degree from LSU in 1979. Rucker has had several solo exhibitions in New Orleans, including major installations at the Arthur Roger Gallery, and has participated in group exhibitions in Boston, Sarasota, Knoxville and Baton Rouge, LA. He is presently recording his third CD of original music, which will be independently released later this year.
“I’ve been the luckiest hillbilly to have moved further south. I owe my entire life and career to this town,” Rucker said.