“My husband says the FBI knows what I’m doing because I have a heat signature constantly going,” chuckles artist Alison Ruttan as she leads me into the basement of her cozy Oak Park home. We pass from her living room lined with artworks by Ruttan’s husband Scott Stack and neighbor Sabina Ott into a series of chamber-like rooms with low ceilings and cement floors, all brimming with remnants of unused pieces from “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” which occupies the Cultural Center’s three Michigan Avenue galleries.
Although Ruttan’s studio hosts a kiln and spray booth, she doesn’t consider herself a medium-specific artist. While her practice has a strong foundation in photography and painting, she explores concepts that interest her and utilizes whatever media she feels will best physically manifest what she’s investigating. In Ruttan’s current show, some of her materials of choice were 500 model scale ceramic vehicles colliding atop a thirty-two foot wooden base and a series of intrepid photographs wherein humans posed as primates.
Shot along the Des Plaines River, the photographs feature Ruttan’s family, neighbors and friends acting out Jane Goodall’s research on a group of chimpanzees at Gombe. The artist was struck by the civil-war-like event among primates who had lived peacefully together for years before suddenly splitting into two groups and hunting and killing one another. “Chimpanzees are just as aggressive and unforgiving as we are,” she insists, likening humans waging war to the primates’ same willingness to deliberately destroy their own kind.
Back in Ruttan’s basement studio, we both pause to gaze at several detailed snapshots of model automobiles. “The first stage was the collecting of the cars,” she begins. “I got them all on eBay.” She refers to creating “A Line in the Sand,” her installation depicting the 1991 air attack by American military forces on thousands of vehicles carrying retreating Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait. In Ruttan’s stirring reenactment, hundreds of cast ceramic vehicles collide with each other to create an expansive traffic jam of burnt wreckage that rests quietly in the gallery next door to her Gombe photographs. “I’m interested in drawing my viewers toward an aesthetic beauty as well as the uncomfortable darkness behind it,” she muses. “Why are we attracted to shiny things that are disastrous? The gawking we do at accidents, where we can’t help but look… What does death look like? What’s this thing I’m scared of?”
In an ongoing effort to explore and expose the hows and whys of humanity’s urge to seek revenge, Ruttan’s slow, labor-intensive creative process dilates the limits of the medias she chooses to use as well as the hasty judgments we often make on such swift, ruthless happenings. “This is about humans,” she insists. “It’s not about ‘them and us.’ It’s a loss no matter what side you’re on.” (Maria Girgenti)
Alison Ruttan shows at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington, through April 26.