Contemporary Art Matters is pleased to present Personae, a solo exhibition by Nikos Fyodor Rutkowski. The exhibition features new paintings made over the past year, a time of reflection and introspection as a result of the extraordinary times in which we live.
“I’ve been drawn to masks since childhood. There was an incredible, almost mystical power that accompanied donning a mask as a kid. Even a cheap vacu-formed plastic mask of Garfield could achieve a state beyond anonymity, it allowed one to inhabit a role, to adopt a new persona. It is safe to say that masking traditions appear in a preponderance of cultures across our world, and they are usually connected to long held rites of passage, rituals of renewal, or elevated performance art forms. In America our masking traditions, like most of our traditions, align on more commercial, more watered down notions of masking.” Nikos Rutkowski
The artist has been a collector of masks from around the world, predominantly from Africa and Southeast Asia. Through the pandemic, masks have taken on a deeper symbol for the artist. The idea of “masking up” has become ubiquitous across our planet. Protective medical facial coverings lack the transformative power of a true mask, they only have the ability to anonymize us in public. In Protection and 2/2/2079, Rutkowski revisits the visual trope of space explorers. Many times during the pandemic the artist felt like a cosmonaut, exploring alien terrain every time he went to a grocery store or coffee shop. Protection has multiple meanings: protection in the form of the gear worn by the figure, the form of a weapon, and the form of a fetish item (the doll) that a child might carry around for security. 2/2/2079 references a snippet scrawled on the side of the painting ‘Groundhog’s Day on Mars’, a sentiment reflected in the title. For Rutkowski, much of the past two years has felt repetitive, trapped within a bubble staring out into the abyss. The eyeball form in the top right corner of the painting is a visual manifestation of Nietzche’s oft repeated quotation “…if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Dance Into The Fire takes its name from the refrain of the Duran Duran theme song for the James Bond movie A View to a Kill. The phrasing from the song deeply embedded itself in the artist’s head as he worked on the painting because it looks like a masker dancing around a fire as part of an unknown ritual. Day of 2020 has taken on a deeper meaning after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, presenting the vision of a protestor caught in fire and smoke. Masks speak to the power of our times, images invoking the traditions of our ancestors, as well as our unsettled recent past.
Smoke and Mirrors is a still life, a meditation on our times, missing friends and family. This feast without guests in attendance was also about the absence of ceremony and tradition. It takes this premise farther into a presentation of ad hoc spirituality. The effigy sculptural form of a makeshift deity offers a hodgepodge of items: foodstuffs from different cultures and regions; blades that run the gamut from cutlery to weaponry; a Ukrainian Easter egg that refers to the artist’s own ethnic background. This is a wholly American god: a scene full of chunks that have softened, but not yet fully integrated into the melting pot.
The mask paintings without figures are part of an on-going series and the artist’s working process is evident in these pieces. They are developed directly onto the canvas, intuitively, by collaging sewing patterns on the painting surface. The image emerges from the found shapes and overlapping patterns. Personae refers to all of the works in the exhibition, but this series of masks can be seen as dramatis personae- a real cast of characters.
While the pandemic has been a destabilizing and destructive force, how we perceive ourselves and those around us has been permanently altered. Tribalism, part of society for some time, has taken a firmer hold. Face masks are emblematic of this era, both here and abroad. Masks in general are a symbol of various cultures and reflect aspects shared by all in the human experience.
Nikos Fyodor Rutkowski is based in Columbus, OH where he lives with his wife and three young boys. He has received many accolades for his work, most recently a 2021 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. He received his Bachelor in Fine Arts from The Columbus College of Art and Design.