The State of ANDERS RUHWALD
THE SMELL OF SMOKE STILL HANGS IN THE AIR.
Danish-born, Detroit area-based artist Anders Ruhwald walks through the just-finished first room of Unit 1: 3583 Dubois, his grand domestic installation that will take up an entire six-room apartment in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Detroit. A meditation on fire, every surface in the room smolders black. Yet instead of harsh, the effect is rich—a warm cocoon. Charred pine walls, window frames, and ceiling take on a velvety black sheen. Inhabiting the space are potbellied teardrop forms nearly four feet tall, ceramic Markers, as Ruhwald calls them, their humanity emphasized by their hand-worked surface and inky, oil-spot black glaze.
Fire takes on particular meaning in Detroit, where it has been fuel for much of the city’s widely chronicled decline, and for Ruhwald, as a force for creation—especially in ceramics, his primary medium. The permanent installation, which just received a prestigious Knight Foundation grant, will be an “inversion of the Detroit experience, when it comes to burned houses,” he says. “Something that looks like a functional building from the outside, when you come in, it’s something completely different.” In it, Ruhwald aims to ask: “When a building disappears, what happens to our memories attached to it?”
To realize the ambitious project, which will also include an artist residency, event space, and housing for a caretaker, the artist acquired an entire seven thousand-square-foot, four-apartment building. Opening in fall 2016, its title, Unit 1: 3583 Dubois, at first appears to simply refer to the address for the on-the-mend brick building—except the address no longer exists, at least not within the city records of Detroit. Today, it is officially 2170 Mack Avenue, an address appropriated from the building torn down next door. A way for the city to “structure the decay,” the artist explains.
In a big year ahead, Ruhwald will also have a related exhibition at MOCA Cleveland, opening in September. “Creating the effect of an entirely ‘charred’ environment,” says exhibition curator Rose Bouthillier, “the concept is to create distinct, immersive environments that will correspond to rooms he is developing in Detroit.”
Ruhwald, forty-one, has called the Detroit area home since 2008, when he joined the faculty of the Cranbrook Academy of Art as artist-in-residence and head of the ceramics department, a storied post at an even more storied institution, often considered the birthplace of modern American design. About a thirty-minute drive, and a world away, from Dubois Street, Cranbrook is located in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, where the city’s sprawling highways shift to winding paths.
Born in Randers, Denmark, Ruhwald found ceramics when he was just fourteen years old. Encouraged by a friend to take a class, “I tried it and that was it,” he recalls, spending his teenage years throwing pots. At twenty he was in America, on an apprentice year in Minnesota with potter Terry Dennis, a student of Warren MacKenzie. But, he says, it was seeing a piece by Jun Kaneko that year—a thousand-pound solid block of fired clay—that introduced him to this “totally different approach to making ceramics—a different idea about what the material is and how you can infuse it with concepts.”
Museum and gallery exhibitions came steadily even before he received his MFA from the Royal College of Art in London in 2005. Today his work can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, among others. His work has traversed the globe—from exhibitions in the U.K., Chicago, and Norway, to inclusion in this year’s Cheongju International Craft Biennale in South Korea. He has even had a brief foray into product design with a lamp series for the British design firm Established and Sons.
Works from the last decade line the walls of his sun-drenched Cranbrook studio. The stuff of everyday life appears in sculptural form: ceramic traffic cones, lamps, tubs, chairs, each just skirting function. Ruhwald’s surfaces are a strange and alluring mix: some impossibly smooth, while others take on a pinched texture of unevenness, a reminder that his medium is indeed clay. While Ruhwald’s interest in ceramics is paramount, he is unconcerned with strict classifications of art and design, drawing broadly from both.
“Between craft, sculpture, design, and the decorative arts, Ruhwald’s work oscillates through the categories, without ever settling on any one for long,” writes curator James R. Beighton in the catalogue for You In Between, Ruhwald’s 2008–2009 exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art in England. “The effect is disconcerting, but more significantly it is challenging of our desire to fix objects within clearly defined genres, as his work occupies those fertile spaces in-between.”
For Ruhwald, finding those “spaces in-between” begins with the place itself, whether the white walls of a gallery or the iconic Saarinen House, the location of his “site sensitive” 2013 exhibition, The Anatomy of a Home. Living and working at Cranbrook, as most faculty do, Ruhwald is steeped in the rich history of the campus, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen—also the school’s first president, head of the architecture department, and father of fellow architect Eero. Designed in 1928, the house is a high-minded blend of Saarinen’s Finnish roots, arts and crafts ideals, and an art deco approach. Saarinen House opened to the public in 1994.
Bowl (For A Timeless House), one of seven pieces installed throughout the house for the exhibition, at first appears to be just that—a simple centerpiece bowl placed in the famous octagonal dining room. Yet, at its rim, the cream glaze drips upward, magically suspended, a frozen moment. “It’s the idea of time folding onto itself,” Ruhwald says. Playing on Saarinen’s octagonal form in both ceramics and textiles is The Flight of the Crane, a collaboration between Ruhwald and his mother, Trine Ruhwald, an accomplished weaver (as well as a trained nurse), which was also part of the installation. In it, the shadow of Ruhwald’s own biography emerges: a fellow Scandinavian, adding his work to the Cranbrook legacy, making the campus his home.
The landscape of home is Ruhwald’s richly complex territory—whether to be found in Denmark or Detroit, Cleveland or Cranbrook, or perhaps, most likely, the spaces in-between.