"The Work of Artist Caroline Rust"
Essay by Lauren Piemont
When you access a memory, what is it made of? For Caroline Rust, memories are made of the relics of femininity. Using garments such as camisoles, silk slips, and blouses, or objects such as perfume bottles, makeup compacts, and jewelry boxes, Rust constructs still life paintings, portraits, and landscapes. Many of the materials that comprise her works were salvaged from her matrilineal line, making them nostalgic reminders of family and home. When considered from another angle, Rust’s compositions also tell a deeply resonant tale about the way in which women push and pull to live within the parameters of socially accepted femininity.
Rust produces her work in series. When viewers trace the path of her series, they will find a dance between traditional painting and assemblage, that often settles into a magical place between the two. Standing in the Silent Pool (2014), for example features a found vanity covered in white lace and kissed with soft pink tones. Predating this is her Preserving Traditions (2010) installation, which pairs oil paintings of women wearing red lipstick with pedestals bearing actual lipstick tubes. Shifting to Rust’s more recent body of work, “Approaching The Dressing Table,” viewers discover pieces comprised of a collage of female garments with a whimsical still life of a dressing tabletop painted over them. The shapes of the garments are kept somewhat intact, creating bending forms that are uncommon to furniture, but infused with fancifulness and caprice.
A blush-colored palette unites each of Rust’s past series, but she deftly introduces unexpected colors to imbue her work with layered meaning. In Releasing the Yellow Scarf of Fear (2017), for example, a yellow scarf floats above a pink and cool-toned vanity. The scarf creates an organic c-shape that initially draws attention, but then shepherds the eye across the picture plane dotted with objects such as a hand mirror, a paintbrush, and a stack of books. The suspended scarf seems to suggest the freedom of abandon and prompts viewers to take a fresh look at the items that make the owner of the dressing table who she really is. The Artist’s Yellow Dressing Table (2016), also makes use of lemon yellow. In this piece, the yellow dressing table occupies most of the the picture plane, and cooler hues of pink, purple, and blue surround its form. It is clearly a visual reference to the bold artist archetype, breaking forth from daintiness.
Rust’s current series, entitled “Voices that Skip Towards Night,” is the latest iteration of her experimentation with garments and painting. In this series, she pushes the garments’ abilities further, using their structure to create abstracted imagery reminiscent of the human body. In these works, viewers can see the outlines of the garments quite clearly. Instead of repurposing the garments to depict other objects, she lets their forms stand out unmasked. They are still loose and flowing, but now give the impression that perhaps they were just cast off of an undressed wearer. Rust still applies paint to the garments, but she glazes them with a palette of muted yellow, pink, blue, and green. The hues of her palette have a warmth and, at times, a translucency, similar to human flesh. If viewers look closely, they will also see that Rust has used value to add volume and three dimensionality to the garments. It is as if they are still being worn, but no body parts emerge from their sleeves or collars. This ambiguity creates a spectral or supernatural presence in the work. Rust’s inclusion of constellations in some of the garments’ openings adds to the otherworldliness of this series. The Reflecting Pool of Me and You (2020) contains the constellation of Taurus, while Voices that Skip Towards Night (2020) features that of Virgo. Virgo and Taurus are the zodiac signs of Rust and her late brother, adding a dimension of memory, loss, and relationship to this series.
Though Rust’s works are created with found objects, they do not feel like assemblages. Instead, they feel more akin to conventional paintings on canvas because of the way in which Rust obscures the garments she uses. The garments comprise the structure that the form of the painting will follow, much like the bones of a human body or the studs of a house. The eye of the viewer shifts between recognizing lace on a slip or the strap of a bra, and reading the whole as a landscape, still-life image, or even a figure. It is this play between revealing and concealing that makes Rust’s work so seductive. Are the garments being hidden because they are private, intimate pieces of clothing worn under the outfits women show to the world or are they emerging in varying degrees of subtlety as triumphant, unsung story tellers? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Perhaps that is the condition of the modern woman. Divulging and retreating as she attempts to be heard and still meet the demands of expectation. One thing is for certain when the arc of Rust’s work is considered: she is an artist unafraid to push her media so that she may speak louder and louder.