Rupen at Yumart Gallery

On the lower level of the 401 Richmond complex you walk into the inviting space aptly called Yumart Gallery. On its beautifully lit walls sits a set of constructions, fifteen in all, by an artist who simply goes by the name Rupen. His art is difficult to categorize. That is a good thing since, as a result, the viewer cannot file it under this or that movement or style and quickly move on. Rather, the viewer is immediately challenged. That is a principal aim of Rupen’s – to make the viewer do some work. Ironic given the works are rather spare, and ought to be easily digestible.

Installation view of Rupen, Sequential Vision at Yumart Gallery

At the risk of contradicting myself, the artist is comfortable calling his own work minimalist. And indeed, it shares a great deal with minimalism. Like the original minimalists of the 1960s Rupen eschews painting. As much as these works, at first glance, appear to be straightforward geometric abstractions they are not paintings. At least, they are not canvases, but rather shaped industrial wood. The pioneer of minimalism, Donald Judd, famously renounced painting, and embraced ‘sculpture’, because, as he saw it, painting lends itself to representation even if only in a formal sense, and a principal aim of minimalism was to eradicate all allusions to illusionism in this sense. But Rupen’s reason for disowning painting is more prosaic. He trained as a carpenter, and as a self-taught artist he naturally applied these skills to his artmaking. So painting was never on the table so to speak.

(L-R) Deliniation #3, #2, and #4, each 2023, wall sculpture, 19×19 inches

The primary quality of sculpture, arguably, is shape or form, and this is certainly central to Rupen’s concerns. As art theorist Michael Fried once observed, minimal [literalist] art “stakes everything on shape as a given property of objects, if not indeed, as a kind of object in its own right. It aspires, not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover and project objecthood as such.” And that holds true for Rupen’s work. The overall flatness of these constructions aids in highlighting the shapes of their edges, with their signature curved corners. The resulting softness of the pieces is enhanced by the colour of each, which Rupen endeavours to match with what he already has in his mind’s eye. Indeed, as we see in his Outline Series, colour and shape seem to be in perfect harmony.

Outline series (L-R) #1, #2 and # 3, 2023 wall sculpture

I described his work as flat. That is not entirely true insofar all the pieces incorporate texture to some degree. Sometimes it is realized through a random array of shallow holes in their surfaces, at other times it appears as grooves. As well, Rupen chooses on occasion either to nail into the wood, leaving just their heads flush to the surface, or to nail from the back so that their sharp points stick out towards the viewer, giving the artwork a slightly menacing edge. This understated use of the third dimension – everything about Rupen’s work is subtle – appears more as cast shadow than anything substantive.

RWB/11GL/W, 2023, wall sculpture, 15.5×15.5 inches (left) and 14GL/RCB/P, 2023, wall sculpture, 15.5×15.5 inches (right)

Rupen’s artworks are minimalist, then, to the extent that he reduces them to their essential elements, namely, shape, colour and texture. Everything else is expunged. What he doesn’t share with the traditional minimalists is their ideology. The movement arose out of a belief in artistic progress that was seen as entailing what critic Clement Greenberg called a ‘process of self-purification’. This involved eliminating all ‘expendable conventions’ in art. The results are familiar to us – an artform that denied any subject matter except itself, and crucially repudiated all aesthetic considerations in favour of the conceptual. Accordingly it seems to most cold and authoritarian. By contrast Rupen has, over a period of three decades, developed a way of exploring beauty within the elemental constraints listed above.

His art in this sense is a visual form of litotes, that is, an articulation of beauty by the denial of its negation. (An example of a verbal litotes is the phrase ‘a not ugly rendition’, meaning of course a beautiful rendition.) Likewise, Rupen manages to render his artworks beautiful by denying himself all the traditional strategies by which it is achieved. That is not an easy row to hoe. And in this regard, some may complain that his work is too tight, in contrast to the artworks of Japanese/American sculptor Hiroyuki Hamada, for example. Where Hamada allows himself the use of a great many materials and processes. But there is something to be said for the relatively austere beauty of Rupen’s work. It is quiet, but nonetheless it sings.

Dovetail Series #1, 2023, wall sculpture, 21.5×19 inches (left) and Dovetail Series #2, 2023, wall sculpture, 19×19 inches

The post-minimalist movement arose out of a reaction to the overwhelming formal constraints imposed by the minimalists, while sharing an interest in pared down sculpture very broadly construed, to include performance. Consequently, the post-minimalists embraced many of the formal elements renounced by minimalism. Rupen, on the other hand, has embraced many of these constraints, but has nevertheless shown us how there is room for much lyricism. And his artworks only seems to get better. A most rewarding show to visit, so long as you come with an open mind and a willingness to do some work.

Hugh Alcock

Images are courtesy of Yumart Gallery.

*Exhibition information: Rupen, Sequential Vision, October 7 – 28, 2023, Yumart Gallery, Suite B20, 401 Richmond St, W., Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat 12 – 6 pm.

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