Holly Rittenhouse's sculptures hover just on the edge of recognition. Her forms -- pods, seeds, fruits and nuts -- suggest plants, but she constantly confounds our expectations. Instead of being rooted or connected to the soil, her sculptures hang precariously on the wall in the way that orchids cling to trees. We see severe colors, no green and no leaves. Each piece has a personality and "should have the potential to be a living thing," says the artist.
Some sculptures issue a raucous sexual invitation. Others are tensely fecund -- ready to burst open. A few almost grow before our eyes. One greets us cheerfully with its waving tubers. "My work is about the connection between food, eating and reproduction," says Rittenhouse. "Insects are lured into flowers because they'll get nectar. Then they pollinate the plant so it can reproduce. Birds eat fruit whose seeds pass through them and fall to the ground where they grow."
In some sculptures, we look up into a cavity that is surrounded with petal-like forms. We feel like we're peeping up a woman's skirt. "One reason why I make the sculptures that way," says the artist, "is that I see the viewer as the pollinator."
Rittenhouse also associates her sculptures with human sexuality -- "the stuff we all go through: attracting a mate and having relationships." Elements in her work are often paired. They may suggest lips, tongues and "yielding body parts that we associate with sex," she states. Some pieces have short hairs on their surfaces which evoke hidden areas of the body.
Rittenhouse went to school for eight years before she received her MFA degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1992. "My father is a pilot and at first I thought I'd follow him," she recalls. "But he discouraged me because airline jobs were scarce when I started college. Next, I wanted to join the forestry service. When I decided upon art, I tried textiles and printmaking before I chose sculpture. Graduate school was a long, painful transition."
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist made large wall pieces on panels that incorporated brightly colored cellular forms. These were fashioned from strips of paper she had dipped in wax. She also cut egg shapes from paper, sewed them together and made small sculptures that looked like garlic plants.
"When I took down my graduate thesis show and went home, I thought I'd never succeed," she says. "I decided to make just what I wanted to, started from a plant-like piece I'd produced for the thesis show, and have worked that way ever since."
Holly Rittenhouse has done very well. Though only 31, she is already recognized as an up-and-coming artist in Chicago. In February 1997, she had simultaneous major shows at the TBA Exhibition Space in Chicago's River North gallery district and at the University of Illinois in Springfield. In June, she will exhibit new work at Sherry Frumpkin Gallery, Santa Monica, CA.
Though Rittenhouse acknowledges influence from Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, she doesn't spend much time with art books or in the galleries. "I look at things I can use," she states, "like botanical illustrations which are pretty anonymous. I prefer nature to art, so you're likely to find me examining vegetables at a farmer's market or in the produce department of a grocery store!"
You'll also see her in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. She works there and haunts its Plant Hall, which has case after case of full-scale botanical replicas. Over many years, the museum staff has painstakingly created these models, using plastic, wax, latex, paint and wire. The botanical replicas are a key source for Rittenhouse. She takes a special interest in the reproductively functional parts of plants, those that go into action after fertilization has occurred. These forms are sexual, but not necessarily sensuous.
When she finds forms that interest her, Rittenhouse reproduces them in Plasticine at a consistent scale. Her sculptures are rarely more than 18 inches across. In a single piece, she may combine microscopic diatom forms that she has enlarged and reduced parts from a palm tree. She coats the Plasticine form with unpigmented acrylic paint, lets it dry, and pulls off the film to get a light hollow shape. "I discovered this technique by experimenting in my studio," she says. "You get a nice parchment-like effect. If you paint the acrylic film with rabbit skin glue, it puckers."
When she has fabricated several elements, Rittenhouse leaves them around and putters fitfully with them until they come together into a sculpture. "The best way to proceed is by intuition," she states, "taking as long as necessary to make the perfect piece. But when a show is coming, I must speed up the process." Rittenhouse uses wax, oil paint, and often an armature or internal structure to produce a finished work. Recently, she has begun to make her sculptures "more interesting spatially" by assembling them so they project diagonally from the wall and tilt toward the viewer or to the side. Everything is executed with meticulous craft.
Completely serious and exceptionally mature, Holly Rittenhouse has produced memorable work.
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.