Metamorphosis and Documentation

David Aguirre's sculptures and Chris Rush's altered documents take the stage at Obsidian Gallery

A long time ago, artist David Aguirre went into the landlord business, running studio spaces in the Warehouse District and advocating for the artists who have alighted in its old industrial buildings. So it's nice that the current Obsidian Gallery exhibition proves that lately, he's been spending some time in the studio himself.

Joined in the two-person show by Chris Rush, who's engaged in a curious enterprise of drawing faces on old documents, Aguirre offers up a baker's dozen of ceramic sculptures, the largest body of work he's exhibited at once in some years. The word "body" is very much to the point. If Rush transforms old legal papers and business letters, drawing haunted faces on them, Aguirre's clay works transform the human body. His strange sculptures are part human, part animal.

Colored in pale green or gray, fleshy apricot and rose, or combinations thereof, the dainty 2-foot figures have the naked bodies of people, both female and male, and the heads of animals. Some have a wolf's gray noggin, with eyes alert and ears cocked ("Winged Wolf"). Others, like "Standing Woman With Dreamer," have a soft rabbit head in brown-beige, with gentle looping ears. Only a couple of pieces don't combine multiple species, but even "Man Angel," an endearing roly-poly fellow that has a bit of the new baby about him, sports wings. And the scary-looking "Bird" roosts atop a human skull in clay.

Most of the works, though, fuse human with animal. These hybrids are a little like characters out of traditional Southwest Indian tales, whose trickster animals shape-shift and play pranks. But with the exception of "Que Pasa," a sauntering rabbit dude who juts out one (human) hip and flings out his arms in a street-smart greeting, these figures have no hint of Trickster's mischievousness.

In their sculptural stillness, they're wiser than Trickster, and possessed of a quiet joy. Even the sculptures that portray movement seem caught in a timeless moment. "Standing Woman" springs up in an eternal leap of dance; "Kouros," a man-rabbit, strolls out forevermore in a confident step; and "Deity," a rabbit-head whose ambiguous body is cloaked with a cloak, presides exactly like a god.

Perhaps it's the earthy clay that gives these pieces their aura of ancient solemnity. Aguirre impresses the soft clay with his hands, and runs them through with combs, giving them a texture that's related to the earth. It's tempting to think of these alluring sculptures as portraits of the artist and his mate, coupled with animals they have an affinity to. The male figures even look a little like the real-life Aguirre, a small, lively man with big artist's hands. "Twins," a double piece, features both a man and a woman, their animal masks now pushed back to the top of their heads to reveal their human faces. (She's the rabbit, he's the wolf.) The two figures are like actors accepting applause at the end of a performance, arms clasped around one another, eyes closed modestly. But it's not a play they've staged, but an arty act of metamorphosis.

Light years away from Aguirre's simple shapes and colors, Rush's intricate paper pieces hang on an adjoining wall, similar to a suite of work he showed at Etherton a year ago. This master draughtsman has made some two-dozen portraits, the bulk of them on antique papers. According to gallery owner Elouise Rusk, Rush is always on the lookout for old documents, dumpster-diving, checking out estate sales and so on.

The documents themselves have a hand-hewn beauty long gone in this age of smooth laser printing. Most are written in a beautiful hand, and over the years, they've gotten crinkled and stained; one or two have been scorched by fire. Rush has unearthed some real treasures. A hand-written business letter from 1874 France is filled with flowery monsieur salutations and signed votre très humble and obéissant Grégoire (your very humble and obedient Gregory). A lovely Italian script dates from 1807; "Dauphin," a 1773 letter from pre-revolutionary France, is written with a flourish in black ink and stamped with a seal, royal perhaps.

Rush does not neglect America. A pioneering typewritten business letter from 1894 Ohio briskly thanks a gentleman for his check for the then-princely sum of $310.80. The letterhead for the firm, purveyor of farm equipment, proudly bears an image of its belching smokestack. A legal paper from 1920s Pennsylvania veers surprisingly toward the poetic: "I have set my hand and seal the day," notes a flowery script belonging to someone named Jommers.

On these ephemera, Rush has drawn faces, mostly in charcoal, looking back at us from the past. The pictures are meant to correspond somewhat to the text underneath. On a 1930s American ledger page noting outstanding payments due from customers of Fred Schad & Son Iron Works, Rush has drawn a fierce-looking bully, the very picture of a threatening bill collector. The poetic Jommers is rendered ethereally in pencil, his face fading out at the top of the page.

Sometimes the relationship of the drawing to the text is less clear. And in some cases, the documents themselves are more compelling than the art Rush has added; I found myself wanting to read the text that the pictures obscure. As someone who has worked in historical archives, I can't help but feel squeamish at seeing these documents adulterated, even by art.

Nevertheless, Rush, a talented local artist who's looking forward to an upcoming solo show in New York, has tackled an interesting project here. No doubt many of the documents would have perished anyway without the artist's intervention. His historical salvage work layers present over past; looking back from the perspective of the present, you can't help but feel a pang at the writers' preoccupation with money matters that are now as dead as they are. Rush's works have the same haunting quality that old photographs do, with their window into unsung lives long since ended.