Saints and Sinners

Eriks Rudans, a monk for art, sculpts the real world.

At St. Philip's Plaza, among the chi-chi restaurants and the haute fashion boutiques, a searing sculpture by Eriks Rudans inflicts the grief of the dispossessed on the plaza's rich patrons.

"Death in the Desert" is a huge carved Madonna towering some 6 feet tall. She throws back her skeletal head and wails, open-mouthed, over the death of the Christ-like son lying lifeless in her lap. On view at Obsidian Gallery, this modern-day Pietà, knocked together out of recycled wood scraps and bolts, delivers a horrifying message from America's underclass. Rudans' work reminds us that impoverished Third World migrants, guilty only of wanting to pick our tomatoes and clean our toilets, routinely die terrible deaths among the cacti just up the road from town--death in the Arizona desert occurs every day.

It's not exactly the kind of piece that's going to get a Foothills stockbroker breaking out the old credit card (price tag: $6,000), but then again, Rudans has always been an artist of conscience. Years ago, he abandoned a secure university teaching job in favor of a life fully engaged in art. That plan was successful if you look only at the art. His searing paintings of saints and sinners and his wrenching wooden figures have won him a rep around town as a painter's painter. He's the very model of the artist living the authentic life, doing his own work, oblivious to art world trends and trendies.

But the plan's been a failure economically.

Rudans has lived in utter poverty for years, in a crumbling downtown adobe crowded with paints and tools. Canvases are stacked up against every wall, their painted women staring plaintively out into the tiny rooms. It got so bad a few years ago that his buddies Terry Etherton and Tom Philabaum contrived to get him some attention--and cash--through a sale and celebration marking his 50 years in America. (He's a native Latvian made a refugee by World War II.)

While some of his art is decorative and unabashedly lusty, much of it is hopelessly uncommercial. An example is the huge painting that has hung for years above the stairs at Etherton Gallery. A scathing indictment of Rudans' potential customers, it pictures evil-looking rich people gathered in a Foothills aerie, and their greed and lust are palpable. Ditto for his longtime series on the Seven Deadly Sins, excoriating the lamentable human traits of avarice, pride and envy.

Lately, things have been picking up for Rudans. Just last month came the good news that he had been selected artist of the year, winning a $25,000 Arizona Arts Award from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. And Obsidian opened his one-person show, New Work, on the heels of the award ceremony.

The exhibition is a collection of nine sculptures, some of them painting-sculpture combos that hang on the wall, and five colored drawings rendered in oil pastel. Not everything is as wrenching as the mourning mother. In fact, "The Philosophers," a gathering of four busts of wise men on four pedestals, is its opposite number, a celebration of cool reason. Each of the figures is painted in the soothing, rational tones that colored the rooms of the French Enlightenment--pale blue, gentle green, austere white. There's a wonderful sculptural "Big Cat" as well. The unpainted wood scraps have been assembled into a deliciously muscular feline, its haunches poised and waiting, its orange eyes every bit as piercing as those of Rudans' long-ago painted saints.

Rudans deploys the same sculptural techniques on the philosophical worthies and the kitty that he does on his Pietà. Taking a cue from the Cubists, he breaks forms down into component parts--fashioning angled noses, sharp shoulders and blades of hair--then bolts and glues these disassembled pieces back into a harmonious whole. His drawings borrow from the same technique, their forms made up thousands of shard-like strokes of color.

A few of the drawings skewer sinners. "Payday Madonna Study" pictures an old-fashioned workman, in cap and tank shirt, leering over a sharp-toothed prostitute whose fulsome breasts are busting out of her bustier. Rudans uses color effectively to convey man's raging desires: The working girl's skin is a lurid green, her nipples headlight orange. In "Study--The Seven Deadly Sins," a woman's red-orange hair explodes out of her scalp. Rudans can be accused of exercising that tiresome old male gaze on the female body, and he most certainly uses women to illustrate desire. Still, he offers equal opportunity condemnation to sinners of all genders.

Rudans has always had a Gauginesque side as well. This one impels him to paint picturesque bare-breasted women, desirable and lovely, more often than not inhabiting a fertile landscape as overflowing as the Garden of Eden, or Gaugin's Tahiti. If the sin paintings explore eros' dark side, these exuberant women embody the joy of sex. The Obsidian show has its share of these cheerful women. "Nature of the Garlic Tree Blooms at Night" is a two-parter. One piece is a wooden woman seated on a stool, the basket on her lap overflowing with fruits de mer and fruits of the earth. On a nearby easel, a "painting" made up of sculptural painted pieces portrays a bountiful land, where silver fruits ripe for the picking hang from boughs of a tree and silver fish jump out of the reeds.

The rainbow colors of this happy work, all about fertility and abundance and joy, are light years away from the dispirited monotones of "Death in the Desert." "Garlic Tree" is a fantasy about what life could be. "Death in the Desert," unfortunately, is reality: what life in Southern Arizona has become.

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