Upon initial inspection, the artwork filling the eastern wing of the Shot Tower Gallery at Fort Hayes appears to be wildly disconnected.
There are realist paintings of church-like structures, portraits of sketchy clowns scratched into jugs and set in a row, graffiti inspired canvases and a television playing a series of surrealist dance videos on a loop. There’s also a giant painting of a butt, titled “Butt” and described by the Rietenbach family as “the butt painting,” which is usually displayed just inside the front door of their house. “Even the mail carrier will be like, ‘Oh, you’re the butt house,’” said Sam Rietenbach, joined for a mid-January interview at Fort Hayes by his parents, Tim and Tamie.
And yet all of these works are linked, having been created by three generations of Rietenbachs, including late grandfather Hans, parents Tim and Tamie, and children Sam, Eric and Cole. (In the above photo, each family member sits below a self-portrait done in childhood, including Tim, who scrawled his name backwards in signing his: MIT.)
While there are loose through lines that echo in the assembled pieces, most notably a sense of humor, the exhibit, which kicks off with , more accurately captures the way each era exists as a reaction to the work done by the previous generation.
For instance, Tim’s forays into art, which include sculpture, painting and even digital memes, often found him actively diverging from the more formal, traditional paintings done by his late father, Hans, who taught art at Fort Hayes. (Tim, Faculty Director of Galleries and a professor of fine arts at CCAD, is responsible for works such as the 100-foot sculpture of a human skeleton, appropriately dubbed “Gigantic” and permanently installed at COSI.)
Sam, who took courses in the same Fort Hayes classroom where Hans once taught, likewise attempted to rebel against his parents’ artistic practices by venturing outside of the gallery setting, initially immersing himself in graffiti culture at a time when the Short North was still dotted with decrepit, abandoned buildings on which he could experiment. To his great dismay, of course, his parents approved of his pursuits. Indeed, the family might have painted graffiti together as a means of celebrating son Eric’s 18th birthday.
Each generation extending from Hans has grown up immersed in art, though it has never been forced as a pursuit on anyone, instead emerging naturally over time. Sam, for one, initially wanted to be a soccer player, though a series of concussions forced him from the sport. Meanwhile, educators and his parents attempted to direct him toward other pursuits. One teacher, noting his argumentative nature, told him he should be an attorney. His mother, recalling his fondness for animals, suggested he should become a veterinarian.
But from childhood, art has been a persistent presence in Sam’s life, exhibited by the drawings he displayed at the Vanderelli Room early last year, which he described as diary entries, and which accrued like snowfall. “I have and will forever make more than I will ever show. They pile up and I have them in envelopes and they’re always with me,” . “It’s free-range. Sometimes it’s an experience or a place I’m at, or a trip I’m on. And sometimes it’s nightmares or weird fairy tales or stupid ideas.”
Beyond generational echoes, there are numerous direct links at play in the Fort Hayes exhibition. The water jugs containing Tim’s series of clowns, dubbed “Subcommittee,” once belonged to Hans, who kept them stockpiled in his basement in case of emergency – a possible holdover from his time growing up during wartime in Germany. After Hans’ passing, Tim covered the back of each inherited jug in black enamel paint and then scratched out a portrait of a clown on each, going back in with red paint to embellish certain features – a bulbous nose or oversized lips.
Likewise, one of the dance videos created by Tamie – a series started as an outlet during the pandemic – features a stealth appearance from Sam, who stands in as a body double for his mom to perform skateboard tricks. All of the shorts are informed in some way by the early days of COVID, capturing a restlessness, a desire for escape and a sense of whimsy ingrained in the artist. One video, for instance, originated in conversation with a friend after Tamie expressed a desire “to dance with a cow.” (“I know where you can do that,” the friend replied.)
The family members have different ways of describing this intrinsic urge to create. Tim said it was just something he had always done, while Sam called it an essential release, sharing that his mental health is impacted in those rare stretches he does not put pen to paper.
While this creative drive has remained constant, the canvases have changed. Where Sam once drew on the walls and furniture, he has since progressed to drawing on… his family members, having recently inked Tamie’s first tattoo, a flower in a pot on her upper arm.