issue 30 > nonfiction > kuspit
Kathy In Animal Wonderlandby Donald Kuspit
The acceptance of the animal soul is the condition for wholeness and a fully lived life.
C. G. Jung, Man And His Symbols (1)
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.
…They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank—the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.
The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they had a consultation about this, and after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them, as if she had known them all her life.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2)
All the great Mother Goddesses were fertility-goddesses—Gaia, Rhea, Hera and Demeter among the Greeks; Isis among the ancient Egyptians and in Hellenic cults; Ishtar among the Assyrians and Babylonians; Astarte among the Phoenicians; and Kali among Hindus.
Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (3)
A few of the components of the sexual instinct, then, have an object from the first and hold fast to it—for instance, the instinct for mastery (sadism) and the scopophilic and epistemophilic instincts.
Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (4)
Animals abound—or is it the animal unbound?—in Kathy Ruttenberg's art, and so do plants and trees, all of whom Ruttenberg absorbs into her own identity, all of whom she identifies with, all generated by her body: she's the mother of them all, the great Mother Goddess reincarnate, indeed, with a certain carnal, earthy quality, reminding us that the earth is the mother's body in ancient myth, for it is the site of life. Her art—evident in drawings, etchings, watercolors, and above all numerous sculptures, mostly made of clay, that is, earth—is a veritable wonderland of nature. Animals, plants, and the human body—Ruttenberg's female body—intermingle and merge, becoming inseparable, each "qualifying" the other while retaining its own distinctive nature, giving each of the sculptures a sort of lavish presence, as though each, to use Aristotle's phrase, is "enmattered soul." Confessions of a Tree—a series of watercolors and sculptures, some ceramic, some bronze made over a two-year period (2009-2010)—makes the point clearly: the tree's confessing that it's Kathy, and Kathy is confessing that she's a tree. In the series of works called The Earth Exhales she's clearly Mother Earth, her body literally bursting with life. The Moment After, 2008—the tree of life erupts from her womb, which has an uncanny resemblance to a tunnel-like vagina, red hot as though in feverish passion, or perhaps bloody like a wound, which is what it looks like in the male unconscious, which experiences woman, with terror, as a castrated man—and She's A Natural Beauty, 2011 make this clear.
In Altar Ego, 2010, a watercolor, she shows herself as a fertile flower—her body is covered with a green growth, with two white flowers, both blossoming and wide open, marking her breasts, and a rabbit, symbol of boundless fertility, stands on her torso—and, laying parallel, a barren brown tree, its branches leafless, its form withered like a decaying corpse. She's both Spring and Summer, seasons of fertility and abundance, and Autumn and Winter, seasons of dying and death, when nature seems sterile and depleted. Nature is two-sided, and so is Ruttenberg, in the person of the Mother Goddess, otherwise known as Mother Nature—the Great Creator of Being, sustaining its endless Becoming, symbolized by the changing seasons, one following the other in an unbroken cycle, the constant metamorphosis of nature signaled by its growth and decay, different yet rooted in the same natural process, the model and measure of all imaginative processes.
At least from a romantic point of view: Ruttenberg is a romantic artist, for her art is all about her feelings, reminding us, as Baudelaire said, that romanticism is "a mode of feeling," involving the use of some particular subject matter to express, focus, and communicate feeling—objectify and symbolize it by giving it socially comprehensible form. Ruttenberg's animals and plants embody her natural feelings—feelings that are natural to all of us, that are universal however universally repressed, and thus made to seem unnatural. Animals and plants have a long history of symbolic and imaginative use—there is no better subject matter for expressing natural feelings. They "move" us because they unconsciously remind us of our own nature; we too originate in nature, and are as much a part of it as they are, and unconsciously one with them. Nature dies and renews itself—is reborn, rising from its own grave—and we renew ourselves through art that recreates it, imaginatively personalizing it so that it seems to resonate with our feelings while retaining its distinctive character. Ruttenberg's animals and plants are eloquently and accurately rendered, making them all the more symbolically significant. Nature has been the subject matter and site of art—its inescapable theme, source of inspiration, even for so-called pure art, which tries to suppress its debt to nature, even though its colors and forms are derived from nature--since prehistory. Imaginative concern with animals—and the animal soul of the human body--is self-evident in the cave paintings and bulky Venus figures (Mother Nature pregnant with life) of the Later Old Stone Age. Strange as it may sound to say, Ruttenberg's art belongs to that deep tradition of naturalism—art that depends on nature for its forms and celebrates its substance. It is no wonder that we turn to the wonder of nature when, as Wordsworth put it, "the world is too much with us."
Like all of us, Ruttenberg is two persons in one, but she knows it more than we do—Baudelaire noted that artists are more conscious of human doubleness than other people, however often they also are subject to contradictory moods, indicative of the dialectic of feeling innate to human nature, which, after all, is rooted in non-human nature, whether plant life or animal life. The dialectic of feeling particular to human nature is a version, reflection, and expression of the dialectic of life and death that informs nature in general. When, in Altar Ego, Ruttenberg shows herself as a dead, leafless, emaciated tree, with a smaller, dead, branchless tree—seemingly petrified wood, as its gritty bark suggests--emerging from her head and rooted in her rigidly straight, lacklustre hair, her body bespeaks the death in nature, and lurking in her own nature in the form of depression, so-called living death. But when her body comes alive with green, and her hair becomes curly, lush, and lively, and a small tree with fresh green leaves flourishes in it--a luminous white bird, blue-headed as though a blue bird of happiness, stands on the top of the young tree—her body bespeaks the libidinous life in nature. What is noteworthy is that in both self-images her eyes are wide open, suggesting that Ruttenberg never loses her sense of self, however mortified or vitalized by the self-contradictory process of nature her body may be. She remains conscious throughout her emotional and physical ordeal—clearly she is a victim of nature, including her own nature--accepting the inevitability of the process with a kind of stoic clarity.
The bird on the growing tree—its branches are in effect an extension of the hair that are its roots--is paired with the rabbit on her fertile body, symbolizing its womb. Seemingly opposites, they are the inseparable attributes of her mothering nature, more particularly, symbols of her core self, recurring again and again in her imagery. They are emblematic internal objects, as the psychoanalysts call them. The rabbit represents Ruttenberg's boundless creativity--her endless ability to multiply herself--and the bird, a traditional symbol of inspiration, her ability to soar above the earth in art, becoming a Bird of Paradise, 2009 or, ironically, a Frugivore Bat, 2010 (suggesting that she feeds on the fruit of paradise, and that nature has given her the gift of radar, so that she doesn't fly blind in the darkness, that is, is able to find her way in the unconscious, and suggesting that her art is a kind of self-analysis), however bound to it the rabbit shows her to be. They are the natural components of the creative imagination.
Thus the universal—and strong—appeal of Ruttenberg's art, magnetically drawing us toward it in self-recognition, for nature is the mirror in which we all recognize our doubleness. "I had in my heart two opposite feelings," Baudelaire wrote, "a horror of life, and an ecstatic joy in life."(5) Taken as a whole—and even in individual works--Ruttenberg's heartfelt art seems to have a similar oppositional structure. Her horror of life is conveyed through its sadistic, destructive moments, evident particularly in Half A Man and Head, its ecstatic joy in life through its attunement to nature, rendered with true-to-life color and tender regard, self-evident in her sensitive, even loving treatment of flowers, leaves, and bark. The textural appeal of her work reminds us that without touch there is no growth.
Nature is the mirror which tells Ruttenberg she's the fairest woman of all--outwardly and irresistibly beautiful--and also the wisest, for she finds her own inner nature in it. Ruttenberg's work has a distinguished place in the great tradition of romantic naturalism—the retreat from society and return to nature that seriously began with the rise of industrialism, and with it the industrialization of life: the slow but steady encroachment of the mechanical principle on the organic principle.(6) Ruttenberg, in her own individualistic way, is an environmentalist.
She's also, in her own individualistic way, a feminist. Her work is inseparable from the Great Goddess movement—the emotional and spiritual core of 70s feminism whatever its political and social program—and perhaps its strongest statement.(7) She is also a feminist in that her work exemplifies, insistently, the feminist idea "our bodies, ourselves," involving a rebellion against the so-called "male gaze," that is, the male concept of the female body as a passive object that exists solely to satisfy male sexual desire. The male eye--and "horny" penis—expects to penetrate, indeed pierce the naked white female body, as it symbolically does in Impaled, where it's stuck on the huge horns of a black bull's head. Male dominance and female Submission, 2007—the title of a sculpture showing an animal-headed male figure holding a seemingly unconscious limp white female figure, naked except for pink high heels signaling femininity—are a basic theme of Ruttenberg's art. But so is resistance to the male embrace, as Tree Hugger, 2010 suggests, and rebellious triumph over man, as the sculpture showing a clothed female figure standing on the back of a white male figure, abjectly on all-fours and stripped naked. The work is reminiscent of the old theme of Phyllis riding on the back of Aristotle, reminding us that even philosophers can behave unphilosophically when they have fallen—literally—in love. For Ruttenberg, sex is the scene of a power struggle between men and women, suggesting that it is not entirely satisfying, however satisfying it is. Men and women are not exactly in harmonious, "synchronized" relationship in Ruttenberg's art, which is why their relationship seems more painful than pleasurable, indeed, destructive of woman, and why her art deals mostly with herself, that is, falls back on Female Nature, Male Nature being aggressive and disappointing.
Ruttenberg's Vagina sculpture locates her in the tradition of what has been called "vagina art," exemplified by the many vaginas on the plates of Judy Chicago's Dinner Table, 1979. But there's a crucial aesthetic difference: Chicago's self-dramatizing vaginas tend to be gaping holes, agonized, angry, and ugly all at once, emotionally shocking even while emotionally shocked, in sharp contrast to Ruttenberg's Vagina, which is discreetly closed, even shy and insular, and as subtly beautiful as any vagina on an ancient Venus, even as a large blue male head is attached to it by a thick white umbilical cord—an even more crucial existential difference. The interdependence of man and woman is signaled, however reluctantly; it may be that the vagina has a mind of its own—a head—and that the male head has sex on its mind, but their attachment, if only by way of sexuality, is biologically inevitable, that is, "natural." Nourishment from the mother passes through the umbilical cord; without it the baby can't grow and get "ahead" in life. Unlike Chicago's self-congratulatory, deceptively autonomous vagina, Ruttenberg knows that the vagina needs a penis to "complete" it, if only as a means to its destined end: the penis serves the vagina the way the vagina serves the womb. Both serve life: Ruttenberg knows that the Mother Goddess's vagina doesn't exist just for narcissistic display, but is the site of birth.
Her smooth, hairless, idealized, modest Vagina is emotional worlds apart from the bushy hair of the realistically creased in-your-face vagina—intimately tempting and tauntingly uninviting at the same time—famously on display in Courbet's The Origin of the World, 1866. It is the vagina viewed from the perspective of perverse male desire--a vagina that is all raw exterior with no interior life, that is, a vagina that is not the refined passage to the womb, which is its inner meaning, but rather a peculiarly monstrous vagina. Its tangled hairs evoke the snakes that were Medusa's hair, suggesting that the man who looks the vagina in the face will be terrified and petrified, meaning that his penis will lose its potency however erect it may become at the sight of the unveiled vagina. The vagina hints at woman's creative power, while the penis symbolizes man's will to power—over woman, and in general.
Woman seems to lose the battle of the sexes, but even at the moment she is conquered by man she wins the battle by emotionally turning off, as Ruttenberg seems to do in the sexual scene that adorns the dress of the kneeling woman, elevated on a circular table with elaborate baroque legs, in Primal, 2007, an ironical masterpiece suggesting woman's secret triumph over the man she submits to. Clearly she never lost her self-possession and separateness—she's detached, even indifferent, more interested in the bird on the finger of her hand, which rests casually on his buttock. Think of another symbolic meaning of bird, that is, the sexual meaning of "a bird in a hand" (presumably "better than one in the bush")--and note that her arm is in the exact same diagonal position as his erect penis. But she's wearing an orange dress, suggesting that it's not in her, conveying her ambivalence about their relationship. Clearly she's not giving herself to the man, however much she seems to.
The man doesn't have much of a self—a self to lose in the sexual act, as she refuses to do--for he's an animal, not to say dumb beast, as his head shows (and as he clearly is in other works, some of which show him as a donkey). Nonetheless, he must enter her vagina to fertilize her, however blind his animal desire makes him to the creative "purpose" of the sexual act. She has to give her body to him—but never her soul (they're hardly "soul mates")--to give birth to a world of her own. Ruttenberg has given birth to many animals and plants, being the parthenogenetic Mother Nature, but, as the old myths tell us, she paradoxically needs a man, despite herself, to affirm and confirm her generativity—Isis needs Osiris, Venus needs Mars, etc.--at least for the sexual moment. Ruttenberg's art is a narrative art, on the one hand telling the story of Mother Nature in all her self-sufficiency, on the other hand a sexual narrative dealing with the problematic relationship of man and woman.
Ruttenberg makes love to men, as many works indicate, but her love affairs with men end unhappily unlike her love affairs with animals—to the detriment of the man, who after carrying her way in sexual triumph, as in Surrender, ends up castrated and eviscerated, his organs sadistically on display, as in Half A Man, suggesting she's a whole woman, and master of him by way of his desire for her. Sex is not exactly a wonderland for her, as her consistently knowing eyes—wide-open in full consciousness, as I have pointed out, in virtually every self-representation—suggests. To me Venom, 2010, in which she stands on the Great Serpent—like a female St. George slaying the dragon, and sometimes represented standing on top of him, a symbol of the evil of sexual desire, more generally of sin—is a climactic example of Ruttenberg's attitude to man, considering that the snake is a symbol of the sinister penis, and that it was a devilish snake that invited Eve to bite an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The "Great Invisible Serpent"—made imaginatively visible in art—is "lord of the life-principle and of the powers of Nature," and thus the natural mate of the Mother Goddess, who has the same powers and symbolizes the same principle. But there is an important difference. "The serpent is an 'Old God,' the first god to be found at the start of all cosmogonies, before religions of the spirit dethroned him."(8) Ruttenberg is torn between the Old God of sex and the New God of spirit, that is, the desirable body and the aspiring soul, even as she reconciles them—creatively reconciles the profane and the sacred--in her identity as the Great Goddess. Ruttenberg's art is rich with allusions to archaic myths and archetypal figures—stories of creation and the gods and goddesses who do the creating--making her erotic and narcissistic narratives all the more meaningful and profound, especially because like those tall tales her fairy tales are often savagely poetic, and there are always two sides the story.
The Rabbit Lady clearly doesn't enjoy—or at least has mixed feelings about--copulating with the Dogman. It is how Ruttenberg identifies herself—just as Alice identifies with the rabbit she follows into the underworld of the unconscious, populated by the anarchic instincts in a variety of animal forms--and her lover in a fairytale book. A rabbit crowns Ruttenberg's head in She's A Natural Beauty, bounds across her skirt in Who Decides, 2010, she holds a rabbit in a drawing, and has a rabbit's head in a sculpture, showing her holding her own human head—its face is a mask, removed to reveal her animal soul--suggesting that she's a rabbit at heart, or rather in her head. She does the same thing in Lemur Lady. The lemur is a small, arboreal, nocturnal animal, with large eyes and a foxlike face—think of the large eyes of Ruttenberg's self symbols and her foxlike cunning in evading the Dogman. The lemur has a long tail, suggestive of the serpent she triumphs over—in effect ousts from the garden of paradise which her body is. In Latin, "lemur" means ghost, suggesting that Ruttenberg thinks of herself as a ghost haunting nature.
Rabbit Lady and Dogman —beauty and the beast, both natural but worlds apart in feeling, and what they expect from sexual intercourse—were mismatched from the start of their relationship, as the Tree Hugger suggests. Kathy is a female body with a tree for a head, the hugger is a male body with an animal head, confirming that they belong to different orders of nature. The Rabbit Lady wants tender loving care from the Dogman, which she doesn't get; the cruel Dogman wants to "eat her," as Deep Into The Woods, 2010, an ironically delicate etching, tells us. They're not exactly Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods. For him copulation is cannibalism; for her it is a search for intimacy. It is not sadistic—destructive--mastery of the other, but what the psychoanalyst Michael Balint calls a "harmonious mix-up," in which the opposition of body and soul, and of both individuals, is overcome, so that sexual satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are one and the same.
Ruttenberg's Rabbit Lady and Dogman fairy tale is a brilliantly ironical re-casting of the classical Apollo and Daphne myth, as well as of the later romantic beauty and the beast myth, condensing them into a single fantasy of frustrated love and aborted sex. More broadly, it playfully illustrates the time-honored view that man and woman are inherently incompatible emotionally and spiritually. The point is strongly made in Submission: the manly hunter Acheron—identified as such by reason of his deer's head--seems to have had his sexual way with Diana, the moon goddess whose seemingly dead body he holds in his arms, a trophy of the sexual hunt to the death. In the myth, he spies the virginal naked Diana in the woods, and desires to possess her sexually, suggesting that he's one of those temporary lovers that the Great Goddess periodically takes to re-affirm her generativity. But their relationship is not sexually consummated. Before he can act, Diana turns him into a deer, and hunts him to death, thus retaining her virginity. But Ruttenberg, wonderfully reversing their roles, suggests that however sexually reconciled, they remain irreconcilable. She's in the inferior position, he in the superior position, in contrast, say, to their parallel positions in Tree Hugger, although one is a tree and the other an animal--a fundamental difference that announces their complete incompatibility, however compatible they try to become by hugging (but he's doing the hugging, not her). Ruttenberg's point seems to be that even after the beastly man and the pure maiden have copulated—a forced copulation, for the strong animal in the man has raped the helpless woman in the goddess (perhaps she gave in to the man in a temporary moment of weakness)--they remain at odds. The work may also suggest that sexual intercourse between man and woman is the kiss of death—love, in whatever form, doesn't conquer all--particularly when the woman is a goddess and the man mortal.
Their attitude to life and each other are seriously different because their minds and "nature" are seriously different. To reiterate: Ruttenberg's woman has a mind, that is, she's capable of reflection—"second thoughts" about sexuality, among other things--and her man is implicitly mindless, that is, has the one-dimensional mind of an animal (has only one thing on his mind)--making for their difficult and finally impossible relationship, however much they must sexually relate to realize her generative nature.
Every story of the great Mother Goddess includes a sexual event in which she is impregnated by a man, animal, or god. She gives birth afterwards, and dispenses with his services. The sexual event is perfunctorily noted—it's a ritual necessity, a matter of fact means to a creative end. Nonetheless, the male figure remains, receding into the background, which is where Joseph appears in images of the Holy Family, with the supposedly virginal Mary as its matriarchal center. He accompanies her everywhere, becoming a sort of royal consort and servant. It seems Joseph was sexless—more Mary's protector than lover, for he is always shown to be much older than her, as though old age brought with it the loss of sexual desire and performance. He has an odd resemblance to the eunuchs who worshipped Magna Mater in pre-Christian antiquity, masochistically offering her the gift of their genitals—or is it that she sadistically demanded it? They castrate themselves, confirming that they remain true to her—that she's the only woman for them. They sacrifice their penis to her once she had made use of it, so that she could use it to fertilize herself without bothering with them, and ensuring that they won't bother any other woman.
In Half A Man the man has lost his animal half, the lower half whose most prominent feature was his penis. His body is then gutted, emptied of organs, just as one might gut an animal after killing it. But he is an animal who knows what is happening to him, for he is still alive and wide awake, as his open eyes indicate, suggesting that Ruttenberg prefers his upper human half, with its "higher consciousness," to his lower sexual half, which acts instinctively rather than reflectively. She stands on his surviving human half, glorifying in her violent triumph over his animal half. Her sexuality also has its sadistic, phallic side, as the often long, erect, endlessly growing hair in many of her self-representations suggests. It may not be the same tight-laced phallic fetishes that adorn the heads of many of Fuseli's women—implicitly a dominatrix (with a hairy dildo)--but it suggests that she is what psychoanalysts call a phallic woman, that is, the all-powerful mother.(9) In a sense, when the eunuch endows Magna Mater with his penis, he's expressing his feeling that she already has one—a rather majestic, all-important, omnipotent penis compared to his inconsequential one. His humble nature-given penis is nothing compared to the enormous spiritual one she has in his infantile phantasy of her. Its imaginary greatness confirms that she has complete power over him, as a mother does over her child. Without his penis he's Half A Man, and with his penis—which was hers to begin with—her motherhood is made whole.
Ruttenberg is obsessed with hair. It appears again and again, sometimes Overgrown, 2010, always overloaded with meaning. In The [Sexual] Moment Before, 2008, it's blondish and neatly combed, fitting over her head like a cap, and she's a naive little girl, virginal yet seemingly sexually curious—she scratches her head in puzzlement--wearing a sweater over her blouse, along with knee socks and a frilly skirt. In The [Sexual] Moment After (Dead Lady), 2008, she's a sexually experienced naked woman with loose black hair. Her head, arms, and legs are cut off, and her torso is cut below her breasts, isolating it, and revealing her red-hot inner organs. She's been bloodied in sexual battle, as it were, and cut to pieces, or rather "cut to the quick," the womb from which, as noted, a tree of life grows, its labia-like flowers in full blossom. In both works she's accompanied by her pet rabbit, and the ring of dead flowers she holds in one hand "Before" has become the ring of luminous flowers surrounding her body "After." Similarly, the dead-looking tree "Before" has become a flourishing tree "After." It is the familiar dialectic of Eros and Thanatos: sex exhausts the life-principle in the act of aggressively expressing it, so that afterwards the bodies involved seem lifeless, but it also renews life. Her hair is blonde in Grounded, 2009, and blonde, longer, and looser in Crab Girl, 2009. However abject her position, her spiraling shell, emerging from her body and towering above it, is a projection of her womb, even as it shows that she's a phallic woman. In Wildflower, 2010--a brilliantly imaginative invention, not to say tour de force of ceramic sculpture, an allegory of femininity in which woman displays her generative power, as inexhaustible as nature's--her hair, indeed, flowers wildly. The sense of excess—baroque extravagance--is overwhelming, and so is the phallic dynamics of the hair. Each flower grows from an angelic female head, with the heads one above each other like steps on a thick ladder-like vine or tree, reminding me of the ladder on which angels went between heaven and earth that the Bible tells us Jacob saw in a dream. We see something similar in Lily of the Valley, 2010, without the angelic heads, and growing from short cropped blonde hair rather than earth brown hair. But both female figures wear the same virginal white dress, however adorned with brownish leaves in Wildflower. Sometimes the girl's hair is cut short and tied in a flower-like pony tail, as in Primal. Sometimes it's a crown-like patch of phallic-like stems, as in She's a Natural Beauty. Sometimes it's a tree, small, as in October, 2010, or huge, as in Here Forever, 2010, another of Ruttenberg's grand—and grandly feminine--masterpieces. One could go on, but the point is the same: her hair is plant-like or human, sometimes spiky, as in It Had To Be Said and Ladies Chaste, 2007, more often overflowing with organic life. It may change with the seasons, but it conveys her singular self-assertiveness.
When her hair is long and flourishing, it suggests the hair that Rapunzel let down to bring her lover up to herself—her fairy god mother "locked her up in a tall tower that had neither a door nor a staircase, only a tiny window at the very top."(10) But once he's climbed up to her, her hair represents the "dirty sex" she and her lover will indulge in, reminding us that, as the psychoanalyst Bela Grunberger writes, "hair is bound up with dirtiness…apart from its sexual significance"(11)—as though sex isn't felt to be "dirty" by many women. Indeed, as he adds, "there is something attractive about dirty hair, just as there is something attractive about wild animals." It seems that Ruttenberg is caught on the horns of this dilemma: is sex dirty but satisfying—is all pleasure somehow dirty because it is implicitly sexual—or is it better to remain virginal, unsullied by sex with a man, however "sexually" generative one is by nature? Men must be resisted, even killed—after giving into their "animal desire" (as though they were to blame for her doing so)—but then woman also has an animal soul with its own "natural" desire.
I suggest that this conflict is symbolized, on a formal level, by the difference between the rusting steel plane—the so-called "planar dimension" of modernist art, particularly painting, reminding us that Ruttenberg has a gift for painting as well as sculpture, as her painted sculptures show—on which the female figure in Primal kneels, and the curving baroque legs that support the mute metal surface, suggestive of flat affect. It is inorganic and simplistic, a lifeless piece of mechanical junk, a very plain and sterile geometry compared to the seductively ornate and organically complex legs. On the one hand, a minimalist piece of leftover manliness, on the other a maximalist statement of thriving womanliness, reminding us that ripeness is all—reminding us of the ripeness of Ruttenberg's female figures compared to the odd inertness of her male figures, however much they may be animals. Thus the difference between man and woman, at least in Ruttenberg's unconscious. Bringing together the modern and traditional—or rather using the friction and tension between them for her own emotional and expressive purpose--Ruttenberg shows her post-modern credentials, just as her ironical integration of the human figure and natural growth—also expressively worlds apart and seemingly irreconcilable--does. Her use of fragmentation, resulting in part body objects, each peculiarly surreal and abstract—weirdly pure forms--is modern; her whole objects are traditional and realistic, however bizarrely they grow, and grow on you. The removal of the part object from the whole object is similar to the removal of color and line from nature, elevating them into ends in themselves at the expense of living nature, that occurs in modern art, beginning with Cubism and climaxing in pure art—art that has had aesthetic virginity restored to it, one might say, art limited to itself, and thus peculiarly narrow-minded, rather than embracing the plenitude of nature, and thus broad-minded and open to experience.
The emotional conflict at the core of Ruttenberg's art is openly evident in the difference—subtle yet dramatically effective--between the two versions of Deep in the Forest Under The Flowers , 2010. In one, the virginal nude is pure white; in the other her body has darkened, haunted by the shadow of death, as it were—as though tainted with guilt after the sexual fall from grace. And what exactly is buried under the beautiful flowers—which, I remind you, contain both male organs (stamen) and female organs (a vagina-like receptacle with ovaries), suggesting Mother Nature's self-sufficiency. She fertilizes herself, as it were, and thus has no need for a man. Innovative as always, both works are under a bell-jar—perhaps an allusion to Sylvia Plath's bell-jar, not exactly the room of her own that Virginia Woolf wanted--as though in a vacuum of perfection. Ruttenberg is a perfectionist, as her always exquisite flowers show, but she doesn't live in a vacuum, but in the midst of nature, as creatively alive as it is. In other works she ventures into the sexual wilderness, daringly exploring her own nature, looking for the ideal lover, perhaps woman's natural lot in life.
(1)C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (London: Phaidon, 1964), 239
(2)Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Complete Works (New York: Vintage, 1976), 18, 35
(3)Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London: Penguin, 1996), 677
(4)Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1963), XIV, 328
(5)Quoted in Roger L. Williams, The Horror of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 15
(6)Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 126-27 notes that "the mechanical principle…was felt to be the enemy of being, the source of inauthenticity." "The belief that the organic is the chief criterion of what is authentic in art and life continues…to have great force with us, the more as we become alarmed by the deterioration of the organic environment."
(7)For an account of the Great Goddess movement see Charlene Spretnak, ed., The Politics of Women's Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power within the Feminist Movement (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), particularly the section "What the Goddess Means to Women," 3-86.
(8)Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 845
(9)Kleinians call the phallic woman, "central to the early stages of the Oedipus complex," "the combined parent figure," a picture of the parents as a fearful joint couple locked in violent intercourse that will destroy themselves and the infant." It involves "the idea of the maternal penis, and indeed of one concealed inside the vagina." R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (London: Free Association Books, 1989), 60.
In this context Henry Lowenfeld's remarks about the artist are worth noting. In "Psychic Trauma and Productive Experience in the Artist," Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1941 (10/1):116 he writes: "Susceptibility to trauma, a strong tendency to identification, narcissism in the artist are related phenomena. The basis of the drive to artistic accomplishment lies in a heightened bisexuality. Closely related to this is traumatophilia, which compels the artist to see and then overcome the trauma in continual repetition. From the latent frustration the artist's phantasy develops. The urge to identification and expression in work appears as a sublimation of the bisexuality." From this point of view, sex seems to be traumatic for Ruttenberg's woman—an act of violation whose violence she retributively projects back into the man who initiated it. This is why he and she are cut into pieces in two major works, suggesting that sex is what Freud called "soul murder" as well as body murder. It is in effect a love-hate relationship, beginning in love and ending in hate.
Lowenfeld's remarks also suggest that Ruttenberg's woman and man are the two sides of her own nature, interchangeable as well as inseparable, as her replacement of the woman's head by an animal's head in many of her sculptures, and her identification with various animals, indicate. They become her attributes, implying that however human she's more than human, as nature is.
(10)Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms's Fairy Tales (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 244. Named after a vegetable--an aphrodisiac symbolizing sexual "craving" in the fairy tale—"Rapunzel became the most beautiful child on earth." At the age of twelve her fairy godmother locked her in the tower—implying that she was a phallic woman in the making, confirmed when she grew her "splendid hair" long, and let it down through the tiny window, in effect a symbol of her vagina, to bring a charming prince up to her. She was at first "frightened"—traumatized--at the thought of having sex with him but they loved each other so much that she did. She became pregnant (with twins, a boy and girl), outraging her fairy godmother, who cut off her hair, in effect castrating her, that is, taking away her power, much as Samson lost his power when Delilah cut off his hair. And, like Samson and Oedipus, the prince ended up blind, that is, castrated.
(11)Bela Grunberger, New Essays on Narcissism (London: Free Association Books, 1989), 146.