Pandemic brings masked figures into Nikos Rutkowski's paintings

A new solo show at Contemporary Art Matters features sewing patterns and paint in figurative works that draw on the local artist's love of comic books and masks from different cultures

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Smoke and Mirrors," acrylic and collaged sewing patterns on panel, by Nikos Rutkowski

For about 20 years prior to the onset of the pandemic, Columbus artist Nikos Rutkowski primarily made abstract paintings. He wasn’t interested in figurative work. But something shifted and broke loose in 2020. 

“With the pandemic, a lot of people started going back to things from their childhood, nostalgic things. I started getting back into my comic book collection, and I got interested in ... how you can use an image to tell a story,” said Rutkowski, whose sketchbook is often filled with illustrations of Batman and Swamp Thing. “You have to boil down to the essentials for cartooning. Everything has to be really clear. … I wanted to communicate something more clearly and have a message.” 

Rutkowski, a CCAD grad, didn’t dive fully into illustration; his paintings are still abstracted, but they took on more figurative and narrative elements, which are visible in the artist’s new solo exhibition, “Personae,” on view through April 30 at Contemporary Art Matters Downtown.

Nikos Rutkowski with work from "Personae" at Contemporary Art Matters in Downtown Columbus.

The paintings in this body of work didn’t start with blank canvases and brushes. Rather, Rutkowski’s panels begin with sewing patterns, the various shapes determining the direction of the piece. The process, which the artist likens to “a collaboration with chaos,” often leads to several layers of collaged shapes, paint and line work. 

“I like the idea of using something that's conflated with femininity,” Rutkowski said. “Sewing is often looked at as women's work, and I was using it to make these big, abstract paintings, and the history of Abstract Expressionism is filled with toxic masculinity. I like that idea of juxtaposing the medium and the end result.” 

Pandemic themes began making their way into the work, especially in the large-scale painting “Smoke and Mirrors,” a piece with religious overtones that centers an effigial figure surrounded by food and other items. “It was the idea of the absence of friends: having a banquet, but not having anybody there,” said Rutkowski, who ended up making jackfruit, avocados, bananas and more out of the sewing pattern shapes, surrounding the makeshift deity with a melting pot of foods from different regions and cultures. Ukrainian Easter eggs — pysanky — appear, too, owing to the artist’s Ukrainian heritage.

"Dance Into the Fire" by Nikos Rutkowski

“Dance Into the Fire” began to take shape during the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the masked dancer surrounded by flames bringing to mind protesters engulfed in smoke and fire. Initially, though, Rutkowski wanted to avoid painting masks. For years, he created masks while doing special effects work and it all felt too familiar. 

“I have this love of masks from different cultures. And I really like some of these Hollywood special effects guys that do masks, as well,” he said. “I also collect African masks, Southeast Asian masks, Mexican masks. And I love them, but I just felt like it was too on the nose the first time I [painted] one.” 

Over time, though, the idea grew on him. Not only did Rutkowski make peace with the masked figure in “Dance Into the Fire,” he made an entire series of smaller mask paintings, about two dozen total, several of which are included in “Personae.”  

“There’s this weird power to masks where it transforms you,” said Rutkowski, noting the difference between decorative masks and the anonymizing medical masks used during the pandemic. “People mostly just got the disposable masks. They weren't really getting flashy, cool ones. Nobody was taking it as a chance to express their personality or anything. I think everybody was too freaked out.”

"Mask #4" by Nikos Rutkowski

Rutkowski’s mask series, on the other hand, presents a wide range of traits. “I got into the idea of creating these characters. … I tried to make each one of these as different as possible,” he said. “I let my love of creature effects come through in some of them. [‘Mask #4’] reminds me of some of the weird bat creatures and things that are throughout Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ movie.” 

Other large pieces, such as “2, 2, 2079, 2021” and “Protection,” feature characters with cosmonaut-style space helmets — yet another riff on masks and the purposes they serve. In “Protection,” an intimidating figure, who could either be sinister or merely fierce, stares down at the viewer with a piercing gaze while holding a ray gun and a toy doll.  

“There are three different forms of protection in the piece. He's wearing protective gear to be in space, and he's got a gun,” Rutkowski said. “But then the doll adds a weird element to the story. Did he find the doll? Is he holding the doll because he found it? Is he protecting it? Is he holding onto it for his own protection like a kid would?” 

"Protection" by Nikos Rutkowski

“There's a bit more of a story, but it's still open to interpretation,” he continued. “With these, I like that I'm able to talk about them a bit more, but then people can still draw their own conclusions and get what they want out of it.”