Review: John Ruppert's striking composite photos of Icelandic terrain on display at Grimaldis Gallery / by John Ruppert

Black Lake, Orange Sky/Kleifarvatn

Black Lake, Orange Sky/Kleifarvatn

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

For most of John Ruppert's career, metal sculpture has been a major focus, but he has added photography to his pursuits lately. Some of the results can be sampled and savored in an exhibit at C. Grimaldis Gallery titled "The Iceland Project."

The Massachusetts-born artist, who has a studio in Druid Hill, was one of the first winners of the $25,000 Baker Prize in 2009. He has been a faculty member at the University of Maryland, College Park, since 1987 and chair of its art department for the past 15 years.

Ruppert spent a month in Iceland and took a large number of shots that he subsequently fused to create "multiple image composites" of the stark, often sculptural terrain. The manipulative process is evident not just in the strangely colored skies, but also in subtle nuances that reveal themselves on closer inspection.
In a few of the works, the presence of human culture can be barely detected — a low fence winding through a desolate hilltop, for example, in "Laki Ridge," a work that jolts with its avocado green sky. Another such jolt is delivered by "Black Lake, Orange Sky/Kleifarvatn." This 40-by-40-inch print is 95 percent sky; at the bottom of the print, the placid lake creates a striking horizon line.

Ruppert has spoken of choosing "turbulent" hues for the skies as a way to suggest how things might have looked when Iceland was formed. And since that North Atlantic country remains very much geologically alive, the vibrancy in such photos becomes all the more telling.

Even in pieces without surprising celestial hues, there are unusual elements to be found. A horizontal view of a sea wall takes on the quality of a bold abstract canvas, with rock edges where brusque brush strokes would be. A vertical image of a waterfall is separated into sections, like a splice of movie film, and seems to roll like one, too.

One of the most impressive works, "Hekla," is a long panoramic view (20x1091/2 inches) that captures Iceland's most active volcano in the distance with rolling, lunar-like hills in the foreground.
A bank of white clouds hovers around the peak, complementing the blankets of snow running along the mountainside. But not everything in the sky seems naturally cumulus. It looks as if bits of snow have peeled off the earth and floated up to meet the clouds.

Another compelling composite, "Inside Crater/Laki," is a landscape in rich colors and shades. There's a painterly aspect to this — think late-Monet — right down to the bits of blurring where different photos have been gently meshed.  Ruppert's methods can be more upfront. In "Glacier Crevasse/Svinafellsjokull," the beautifully composed image of weather-beaten snowpacks and bits of earth suddenly gains an extra edge when you spot the serrated side of a photo used to create one side of a hill.
The digital manipulation in these works does not make them less real, but, in a way, more personal. You sense an artist trying to encompass not just everything he saw in this wildly interesting place, but everything he felt, everything he wanted to grasp.

A few of the pieces that were in the exhibit when it opened are in Florida with the Grimaldis booth at the Art Miami fair, but are due back next week. Even without them, "The Iceland Project" provides an absorbing journey.