The Dinnerware Invitational Exhibit Blends Social Indictments With Whimiscal Artistry.
By Margaret Regan
ERIKS RUDANS, KNOWN around town as a "painters' painter," has gone in for fierce social criticism of late.
A few years back, he was painting luminous saints' heads, glowing in their golden haloes, and Gaugin-like innocents in tropical gardens. True, his saints and naked women were never entirely ethereal. In one memorable show at Etherton Gallery, Rudans's female saints had all-knowing eyes. On their hands, where their bleeding stigmata ought to have been, were labia. If they were dispensing grace at all, it was sexual in nature.
More lately, though, Rudans (who also sculpts powerful, primitive figures of wood) has turned his painterly attentions to the darker side of sexuality, and to other human failings. A giant Rudans painting that's hung at the top of the Etherton stairs for the last year is a scathing indictment of greed and luxury in Tucson's Catalina Foothills. In "Arizona Landscape (View from the Mountain)," Rudans, who himself lives modestly in the barrio, pictures lavish houses, pink palaces of conspicuous consumption, degrading the desert slopes. Devilish moneychangers on the patios cast evil eyes on overtly sexualized women, babes in hot pants and plunging halters. The flesh of these sinners is a raw purplish-pink, heading toward the color of bruises.
A suite of four Rudans paintings in the new Dinnerware Tucson Invitational, a group show featuring Rudans and eight other Tucson artists, continue the scathing trend. Part of a series called the Seven Deadly Sins (High Cost of Living), these works on wood impressively catalog human transgressions. Put up the day after President Clinton's television confession, during a week in which the nation wallowed in discussions of lust and greed and lies, the paintings seem almost preternaturally apropos.
"Come to the Light, My Children," an acrylic and prismacolor on wood, puts the television, our much-maligned national hearth, on trial. The foreground offers a view of the TV set's rear end, of its wires and antennae and electronic entrails. A family is mesmerized by the television's transmissions, and the TV's blue-white light illuminates their ugly faces: dad's bald, mom's thick, the kids are bloated. Behind them is a whole tribe of television sets, each with its captive audience. The hordes of viewers encompass all humanity, from young to old, and they're all naked and ghostly pale from lack of sunlight.
There are no architectural details, no beginning or end, in this strange space. Occupied by those living half-lives through television, it's rust-red and seamless, an updated techie version of Hieronymus Bosch's hell. Television is the suave Satan in this inferno, but for which deadly sin are the viewers paying? I vote for sloth, for the lazy acceptance of all things televisionary.
"Payday Madonna" presents the most unattractive picture possible of homo sapiens in heat. A workaday guy leers at a prostitute. Perhaps it's only my own over-media-heated imagination, but the half-naked woman with flaming red hair looks a heck of a lot like a sneering Paula Jones. The deadly sin here is lust, of course. A moneychanger, like the ones who come in for a walloping in "Arizona Landscape," resurfaces in "At Dinner with Mr. G." This fat fellow, the apotheosis of greed, is gobbling up 100-dollar bills as fast as he can chew them. His naked body is swollen with billows of flesh and he excretes the change: coins and one-dollar bills, mixed with excrement.
Rudans, a painter who left the comfortable sinecure of a university job years ago, attacks the passivity of students in "The Halls of Higher Learning." A sea of blank young faces is set against a classical-looking arch. Some of the students have funnels surgically implanted into their bald pates, the better to drink up knowledge submissively, while the rest have corks plugged into their skulls, the better to keep new information out. Sloth, again, I suppose.
The painter doesn't soften his castigations with gorgeous painterly technique, either. His colors are strangely muted, compared to his luxuriant hues of the past, and he energetically criss-crosses his expanses of painted color with Prismacolor pencil. The drawing is almost cartoon-like, but his impassive figures are almost classical in their simplicity. This is strong work.
Tom Philabaum's got some devils too, in his glass work "See No, Hear No, Do Know..." A trio of demons dance around on a Caribbean island, one holding his hands to his eyes, another to his ears, and another to his naughty parts. Philabaum's funny where Rudans is ferocious, but they may well be alluding to the same topical subject. Philabaum works in his rough paint-on-glass technique here, a welcome alternative to his sleeker pure-glass works. The methodology is still complicated--there are two layers of painted glass, like two circles of hell--but the paint betrays the touch of the artist's own hand.
The show represents a welcome end to Tucson's typical summer art drought. There's a fine Jim Waid, "Horus," in ochres and black. Howard Somers Conant, ex-head of the UA art department, shows a series of flatly painted geometries, sparked by gold leaf and patterned backgrounds. Particularly noteworthy is his exuberant "Homage to Charles Ives." Cy Lehrer's elegant black-and-white photos of rural desolation are from his series Great Plains, The Vast, The Diminished Land.
Other works offer a take on sexuality light years away from Rudans'. Keith McElroy, a UA prof, has constructed a grid of nine beauteous sleeping male heads in color digital prints. Phillip Lichtenhan assays female flesh, but his pair of loose, quick pastels are in the grand tradition of the beautiful nude. Ceramist David Aguirre has a set of his trademark, painted earthenware figures--part human, part animal, part angel. "La Sombra Angelina" is a male with flying red hair and the most innocent of erections.
UA ceramist Aurore Chabot, the only woman in the show, gets away from all these prickly sexual matters. The dancing partners of her "Hip Hop Matilda (Chair Pairs from Down Under)" are sweet ceramic chairs--eight sets of them to be precise--waltzing and cavorting all over the gallery wall. Inset with fossil-like worms and shells, banded in blue and orange, arms and legs burnt black, they're funny little pieces, wonderful and spry, and decidedly without sin.
Tucson Invitational continues through September 12 at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with extended hours on Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, call 792-4503.
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