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The ethereal "Floating Orb" graced Ladew Topiary Gardens in 2019.

A pink-granite rock faces its patinated-copper copy in "Split Rock."

"Venice Gourd" is now on view at the 2024 Venice Biennale.

Ruppert stands in his studio beside "Liquid Tectonics," a series cast in solid iron. Portrait: Bob Narod

Forces of Nature

With cosmic beauty, John Ruppert’s sculptures echo the natural world

Behind John Ruppert’s Baltimore studio, a motor roars. From the side of his truck, the sculptor controls a hydraulic lift, raising a flexible, galvanized-steel wire object to stand eight feet tall. When the structure is lowered to touch the ground, its weight pops open the cylindrical form. Then Ruppert tightens internal cables, pulling the sculpture into its final shape, five-and-a-half-feet high by eight feet in diameter. The work is a prototype for Venice Gourd, to be presented in a tranquil waterside park beside the 2024 Venice Biennale—the world’s most prestigious arts festival.

The sculpture is made of chain-link fencing that has been customized: Its diamond pattern is smaller than usual, and its vinyl coating an intense spring green. “Venice Gourd will act as a monitor to the site,” says Ruppert, noting how the piece initially will blend into the landscape. Later, when summer turns to fall and nature’s vivid colors fade, its brilliant hue will become dominant.

Over a 40-plus-year career, Ruppert has mastered the art of working with different materials, primarily metals. Inside his vast studio—an 1895 brick building that once housed part of Baltimore’s trolley-car system—massive and smaller works reside. Nestled under a soaring roof, the main gallery presents a spectrum of completed sculptures along with photographs representing different periods of his work. Elegant, iconic metal sculptures and rock formations—elemental and mysterious—all derive from nature. Despite the urban setting, a feeling of calm prevails.

Among the assembled sculptures, four slender pieces reach skyward. Reproducing the rugged vestiges of trees struck by lightning, the works are cast in iron, aluminum and stainless steel. Original wood models for these “strikes,” as the sculptor calls them, are lined up nearby, extending 35 feet high. “These shards contain the energy of how the trees were blown apart,” says Ruppert. “They bring attention to extreme storms that have become more violent, and our relationship to the solar system and how fragile our earth is.”

The sculptor recalls the locations where each fragment fell. In fact, their GPS coordinates are memorialized in subtitles of completed pieces. One describes a work-in-progress hanging from a mammoth gantry—twin strikes cast from the same shard in stainless steel. Having pulled from different places to orient the nearly 12-foot-tall diptych, Ruppert refers to the setup as “this crazy network of ropes, like a marionette. I’ve worked them into the position I want. Now I’m trying to figure out how to pin them down.” Asked if he ever seeks engineering help, the sculptor laughs heartily. “My dad was a mechanical engineer. Maybe it’s in my genes,” adding, “I just figure it out. I kind of overbuild it.”

The gantry system used for his strikes also lifts heavy sand molds that are cast in the studio. Molds form a precise negative of any object. When metals are heated in a furnace off-site, the molten material is poured into a mold that has been buried in a sand-filled trough. Once the metal solidifies, its piece mold is removed. Ruppert may highlight seams by polishing edges where the mold came apart—“a vein of energy,” he says, “expressing the hand of the artist, and a metaphor for rivers and waterfalls that accent the landscape.” Pouring molten metal may happen at University of Maryland, where the sculptor established a foundry and served as art-department chair for 13 years.

Ruppert displays his rock sculptures in pairs—an actual rock facing its copy. That relationship raises an existential question: Which one is real? Underscoring the confusion, he approaches two oversized rocks, one an iron casting. “You can see that this is real,” he begins, indicating the real rock. “But when it’s next to the manufactured one, you think, ‘Well, this one has more presence. Maybe it’s real?’”

A similar puzzle arises from his latest work—small, 3D-printed “rocks” of resin. After a rock is scanned, the file is reversed; its printout becomes a mirror reflection of the original. Unlike his cast-rock arrangements, the rock sits atop its resin counterpart, “like a rock sitting in water and its reflection,” the artist explains.

Throughout his work, Ruppert considers the effects of light—“how it shapes materials, or how materials shape light.” Like Venice Gourd, his sculptures respond to changing light throughout the day and seasons. Since 1992, when the sculptor found a roll of chain link left at his studio, his galvanized-steel sculptures alone have been exhibited from Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland to venues in Memphis and Shanghai.

“Chain link is perceived as this really tough material,” the sculptor says. “The way I work with it, it’s very malleable and actually fragile.” Pausing to consider this contradiction and viewers’ perspectives as they confront these sublimely simple, perplexing forms from near and far, he observes, “That’s one of the things I’m interested in: how the sculpture works back and forth with your perception.”

Contemplating the enigmas of nature and his art, Ruppert encourages “slowing down and looking closer at details and subtleties.”

John Ruppert’s art is represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery. cgrimaldisgallery.com; johnruppert.com

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