BALANCING ACT, BRONZE, 19 X 36 X 19
By Wolf Schneider
Jim Rennert’s sculptures have been known to make people laugh and even cry. Rennert, who was successful in both the business and sporting worlds before turning to art, is best known for his figurative bronze pieces that are clever visual metaphors on the competitive nature of business and life. “What’s helped me the most in my life is what I learned in my athletic endeavors—and that is not to quit,” says Rennert.
Business and sports analogies abound in his Men in Suits series, with titles like TEAMWORK, OUTSIDE THE BOX, MARATHON MAN, SWINGING FOR THE FENCES, and THE GREAT RACE. “I have a friend who played football for the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t want to lose at anything. It didn’t matter if we were playing racquetball or cards or even mowing our lawns, he always wanted to be the best,” says Rennert. “In business, too, you have to be competitive. You have be good at what you do and be better than anybody else.”
This applies across the board, says Rennert, no matter what field you are in. “Meeting deadlines, staying ahead of the game, establishing and accomplishing goals for yourself or for the company—everyone can relate to that,” he points out. “With Donald Trump it doesn’t matter if it’s a television show or a skyscraper he’s developing, he definitely wants to be the biggest player out there,” says Rennert, who admits to watching Trump’s “The Apprentice” on TV. The series he really relishes, though, is “The Office” for its dry humor and irony. Which comes as no surprise, since humor and irony are often evident in Rennert’s high-concept sculptures.
His piece called HIGH RISK, for example, shows a businessman holding onto a support with just one hand as he dangles precariously in the air. “It speaks to the fact that you’re out there on your own and it’s up to you,” Rennert notes. “This is about the guy that has a sales quota to make, and he’s just hanging in there.” He likens it to the cutthroat nature of business in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, where struggling salesmen are desperate to hold onto their jobs when a compassionless sales manager comes in to revamp the team. “When I watched the first 15 minutes of the movie, I was sweating bullets!” says Rennert. “What does the sales manager say? ‘First place is a brand-new Cadillac. Second place is a set of steak knives. Third place, you’re fired.’ I was in sales at the time, and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out and sell something!’”
Like his piece WALKING THE TIGHTROPE—in which a businessman tries to maintain his balance while walking a narrow edge—many of Rennert’s sculptures are apt metaphors for life beyond the business world. “Everyone has to walk a tightrope every day to keep everything going forward,” he observes. In BUSINESS AS USUAL, two teams of businessmen take part in a classic game of tug of war. “Conflicts happen every day and it’s a tug of war as to who’s going to prevail, whether it’s what direction to take or whose idea gets the nod.”
WALKING THE TIGHTROPE, BRONZE, 22 X 57 X 15
The sculpture that elicited tears was BREAKTHROUGH. Dwarfed by towering walls that squeeze together at an angle, a tiny figure manages to make his way through, striding confidently out the other side. Rennert was exhibiting the piece at the annual Sculpture in the Park show in Loveland, CO, and he remembers that it brought a woman at the show to tears. “I don’t think she was a business person,” he surmises, “but I’m sure she had something in her life where she broke through to a better place and she related to that.”
Rennert feels empathy for his suit-wearing protagonists, having been one himself. “For me, it’s about going out every day and doing your job well, trying to be competitive within your industry and within your company. I try to show that in my art,” he says.
He ponders the divide between artists and businessmen, acknowledging that the often unstructured nature of the artistic process can be at odds with the scheduled culture of the corporate world. Yet, Rennert contends, every artist is a businessman in a sense—artists have to take an entrepreneurial approach to move their careers forward. “You try to find a voice, and use that voice to create an image or a form that expresses an idea. And then you have to find an audience.”
Rennert spent his boyhood in Las Vegas, NV, the son of an entrepreneur father and homemaker mother. As he remembers it, “It was a stricter upbringing than most. I’m Mormon. My parents joined the church in Vegas. I grew up naïve but very happy. I wasn’t a super student. I loved sports, though.” He liked drawing, too. But at age 11 he took a drawing class, got a C minus, and decided art wasn’t for him. “Probably in reality, my drawing is about a C minus,” Rennert laughs. “I’m much better at the concept. It’s not classical figurative work that I do. It’s interpretive.”
His family relocated to Salt Lake City when he was 13. He finished high school there and then went to Brigham Young University on a wrestling scholarship. He married while still in college and dropped out before graduation to work in the Oklahoma oil fields. During the 1980s he and his wife, Wendy, moved to Dallas, where he worked in oil and gas investments, had a stock brokerage firm, was an investment banker taking companies public, and bought—and sold—a golf ball company.
“After we sold the golf ball company in 1990, I had some money and was playing a lot of golf while deciding what to do next,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll start drawing again.’ I went to the art store, but I looked at the paper and thought, ‘There’s nothing I could put on that paper that would make me want to frame it.’ So I bought some clay.” He turned out to be a natural at sculpting.
He and Wendy moved back to Salt Lake City, where he consulted with a professor friend at BYU who encouraged his sculpting. Soon Rennert was welding, casting, and applying patinas. “It was like, just give me a direction and I’m going,” he remembers.
For years, he sculpted kids and sports figures. Then in 2004 he received a commission that launched the Men in Suits series. His sculpting assistant advised him to commit to that concept with a consistent body of work that he could submit to galleries. Rennert heeded the advice. “I’m an easy-going person, but I’m intense and very focused when it comes to pursuing and accomplishing things,” he says.
Strangely enough, his golf game helped his artistic career. “I still golf,” says Rennert, “and I would bet my artworks on the golf course. I’d say to my partners, ‘I don’t have a lot of money, but I have this piece, and I’m willing to bet it,’” Rennert laughs. “Fortunately I won most of those matches—but that started a lot of collectors.”
Rennert doesn’t wear a watch or keep a day planner. He says he’s usually only punctual for tee times. He can generally be found working in the studio in his garage, where he creates 10 to 12 new pieces a year, in editions of 7 to 45. He also does commissions. Now that he’s an artist, he studies other sculptors who inspire him, such as Richard Serra (“He tried to change the environment that people experienced,” says Rennert), Robert Longo, and William McElchern.
It’s been four years now that he’s been sculpting the popular Suits series. Will his figures eventually lose the jacket and tie? “I think about it all the time—about what’s next. It may end up being less about business and more about life,” he says. “Certainly in Salt Lake City or Colorado or California, a lot of businessmen don’t even wear suits anymore. So the suits are metaphoric. My sculptures are about life, about persevering and accomplishing and being competitive in today’s society.”
As for what’s next himself, Rennert cheerfully evaluates, “I’m a very spontaneous guy. I met my wife and three days later asked her to marry me. I’m a risk taker. If there’s a door open, I’m willing to charge forward through it.”
Featured in July 2008