Joe Rudko | Folding time in lines and layers
Interview by Jon Feinstein | Photos by Megumi Shauna Arai
Joe Rudko is one of the hardest working photo-based artists in show business. Since this past summer, he’s become a full time artist, buckling down in his studio full time to make some of the most painstaking and meticulous collages and found-photo interventions I’ve seen in years. His continuously evolving “Object Drawings” turn vintage photographs into multi layered drawings and three dimensional sculptures that reinterpret the experience of looking at static images, as well as the world around us. In advance of his upcoming exhibition at Roq La Rue gallery in Seattle, I caught up with Joe to learn more about his process.
Jon Feinstein: Rumor has it that you’re making work full time now. I love hearing when artists, especially young artists are able to dedicate all of their time to making work. What’s your typical day look like?
Joe Rudko: Yeah, I quit my day job about 3 months ago. That really felt great. I don’t know if I have too typical a day, other than being in the studio for 8-10 hours, and giving attention to whatever is directly in front of me. I’m here by 11 in the morning and work on various projects until dinnertime. Over the last year I’ve really fallen in love with the time in the studio.
That’s great, and it’s really shown in how quickly your work has evolved. Before we get too deep into your practice, the music nerd in me has been dying to know — how did the Death Cab album cover come about?
Glenn Newcomer, who I knew when I lived in Bellingham WA, works for a design firm in Seattle called Hum. They were doing the album design and packaging work, and he saw connections between the work I make and the process of Kintsugi, which the Death Cab album was titled after. Kintsugi is the Japanese word repairing an object with a precious metal, highlighting the break, and in turn honoring the past history of the object.
(Left to right) Exploded View, Big Artifact
Can you tell me a bit about your own process – start to finish?
My process seems to always be shifting. Sometimes it starts with an image, and other times I’ll be propelled by a new working method. It’s largely informed by a mixture of the photographic content, and the general language used to make and describe photographs. For example, the x shape that makes up Exploded View is reminiscent of the geyser eruption that makes up the subject of the image. The separation of the corners from the center of the image refers to an exploded view diagram that is commonly used in camera instruction manuals. If I’m lucky, the manipulations will reveal my initial attraction to the image.
The camera/ manual / photo history references come up a lot in your work….
I think there’s an interesting culture that surrounds photography, it is more widespread and approachable then other art- probably because it’s so tied to technology and everyday use. There’s something silly about pictures of cameras- it makes me think of Magritte’s paintings of paintings. The ephemera that surrounds photography provides a contextual awareness for the images. I think it makes the pictures more object-like, pulling them away from illusional space.
How did you connect with PDX Contemporary? Are they representing you exclusively?
In 2013 I was invited by Sharon Arnold to participate in a “Recent Graduates” booth at the Affordable Art Fair in Seattle. I think that’s where Jane first saw my work. I did a group show with them, and then my first solo show in February of this year. Now they represent me in the state of Oregon, but occasionally they will take my work to fairs like Seattle Art Fair this past summer, and PULSE Miami this coming December.
Does being a “full time” artist — meaning one who survives on your art as your source of income — impact your practice?
It’s freed up a lot of my time, giving me a much more fluid schedule and ultimately reducing my level of anxiety. My goal has always been to make the work that I want to make, market or no market. At the same time, selling the work opens up a door to more freedom and experimentation. I think that I’ve always been a bit cautious about what I decide to put out into the world.
Do you think your work has changed now that more eyes are looking at it?
It’s definitely been changing. As I’ve worked more with the limitations I’ve set for myself I think the work has broadened out from being about one thing. Initially when I started making the Object Drawings, my thinking was more in line with the object-ness of the photographic image. Something that seemed very pertinent and opposite to the ubiquity of the online image experience.
Who are a few artists inspiring you right now?
Lawrence Weschler did a book called “True to Life” compiling 30 years of conversations with David Hockney that is really good. It’s largely about Hockney’s investigations into visual perception and how we view and represent the world.
Other people I am currently stoked on: Lucas Blalock, Erin O’Keefe, John Divola, Gordon Matta-Clark, Letha Wilson, Jessica Eaton, Curtis Mann, Richard Tuttle, and Richard Aldrich.
Since I moved here in 2013, I’ve noticed that Seattle has a particularly tight-knit art/photo community. How does this influence, help, and impact your practice?
I’ve been in Seattle for 2 years now and yeah it is pretty tight-knit. It’s natural that all the artists find each other pretty quickly. I’m really happy to know several talented and driven artists; I think it makes you step up your game. They can also be a great resource to keep learning and building on the approach to my work without the cash required for grad school.
For some reason, photographers specifically can often separate themselves from the “rest of the artists”. Maybe it’s something expressly about the medium that always seems to be on trial. I think the benefit of the smaller art community is that there’s room for you to do your own thing, and for that to cross over a variety of mediums and approaches.
I completely agree. I think that’s been a problem historically with photography – the larger art world dismissing it as “art” for much of the 20th century, and in turn, photographers putting themselves into a photo-ghetto that helped to reinforce that idea. How did you move from straight photography into collage/ “mixed media” based work?
I blame it on the Internet. During my last year of college I was having difficulty defending the photographs that I was taking, and being active on sites like Flickr and Tumblr wasn’t helping. I felt like I was adding to this massive stack of forgettable digital photographs. Making work using existing photographs was a way to comment on the conventions and contradictions within photography without adding to the pile. I was thinking about how my physical gestures were a way to recycle and retire images from the world, one by one.
This work is so much about the folding of time in how we experience viewing images/ how technology has changed that. As you get deeper into this work do you see these ideas broadening/ shifting?
Something interesting can happen when you look at an object from the past with the conventions of the present. I’m interested in that always-shifting history of the object, and how it makes the photographic information vulnerable.
Lately I have been tapping into the ways that personal association can shape interpretation. It’s sort of an internal diptych, in which the treatment and placement inform some sort of relationship. Occasionally Ansel Adams reproductions are making their way into the work. For me, he is the quintessential photographer to reference, someone whose images are so engrained in the collective psyche that they could be read as symbols of photography itself.
Why is Adams so quintessential for you?
Ansel Adams was probably the first major photographer that I was exposed to growing up. I think that I’m attracted to using his work because it’s familiar and so ubiquitous that his images can become a stand-in or prop for the medium of photography itself.
There’s also the connection that Ansel Adams has with the darkroom and photographic manipulation. His darkroom processes added intense contrasts and depth to American landscapes, provoking one of the first widespread conversations about editing and truth in photography.
You’ve mentioned your inspiration coming from being overwhelmed with the sheer number of photographs you see every day — I imagine it’s even more daunting now/ this far into the series.
Making this work in an analog fashion is some sort of escape route from the screen-heavy experience of digital photography. It makes me slow down my engagement with a photograph, and try to understand why I’m reading it the way I am. That’s where the work happens–when I’m able to shift the focus of an image to address the nature of the medium, and the potential an image has to communicate a variety of ways.
Does your process still hinge on manipulating vintage photographs with collage, drawing, and other techniques?
I’ve started to zero in more on some of the ideas, and that determines my approach on a case-by-case basis. I’ve recently been using sculptural attributes to reinforce or negate the subject matter in the images. It’s an attempt to combat the flatness in photography and painting, by adding a layer of sculptural language. Maybe it’s an attempt to condense Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs into a single object. Using photography and sculpture in tandem seems like a concrete way to bridge the abstract space between the virtual and real.
How do you go about selecting the found photographs that you later manipulate?
Lately I’ve been attracted to images that feel like they could be described in one word- like a flashcard. Or sometimes seeing one image will trigger a connection with a previous image I’ve seen, and I’ll want to put them next to each other to see if I can understand that tendency to connect new things to things we already know.
(Left to Right) Color Layer, Venn Diagram
Does digital play any role in your process?
I’ve worked a little digitally, but not too extensively. I started learning about photography at the moment when the digital/film conversation was in full-force. I’m more attuned to reading photographs in a digital context, and that has seeped into my process.
Last we spoke you were not editioning/ making prints of your work — each piece existed as a unique object. Why that decision? Is this still the case?
Editioning is a bit contradictory to the initial drive of the work, which was to reduce the huge pile of photographs that already exist. But, in my current show Broken Image at Roq La Rue, I have a pseudo-edition of pieces that all utilize the same image treatment, but come in b/w or color, and in 3 sizes. I was thinking about the decisions that a photographer has to make after the fact: How large should I print it? Should it be in b/w? etc. and how these questions are often incidental. I want to point at that absurdity and make it essential to the reading of the work.
Do you consider yourself a photographer/ artist/ does it matter?
Sure, I’m a photographer. I’m also an artist. I don’t know if it matters what I consider myself to be, but I do like working in a space that isn’t easily defined.
Q&A: Brian Paquette
INTERVIEW BY SIERRA STINSON & SERRAH RUSSELL | PORTRAITS BY MEGUMI SHAUNA ARAI
Brian Paquette is a talented interior designer, local arts supporter, and all-around great guy. Coming from a conceptual art background, we knew he would be a great fit for our Arts Enthusiast series. Follow along as we pick his brain on his inspiration, his art collection, and how his work creates interactions between art and space, transforming houses into homes.
Vignettes: Tell us a little bit about what you do in your work and life.
Brian Paquette: Well, life first…right? I am from Newport, Rhode Island and moved to the west coast about 8 years ago looking for something different, I worked for textile company in Portland, before moving to Seattle and working in furniture, marketing and then finally taking the dive into my own venture. I started my firm about 5 years ago, just working out of my bedroom, trying to make ends meet and building relationships with the few small clients I had at the time. This industry, like most, is like snow, your success is built upon every individual snowflake hopefully coming together to make a snowball…and then hopefully a bigger snowball. I try to keep my life pretty simple, to be honest. I can be a pretty quiet person, who likes my own space and time to think, read and just be. The nature of this industry, always being on for your clients, reacting to their needs and building lifestyles for them can honestly be a bit draining, so I make sure to take a lot of quiet time. We work in many capacities. I don’t know if I have a favorite between residential or commercial work, it just comes down to common ground and good conversation and a mutual respect for each other. I like to travel as much as possible and see whatever there is to see and breathe in…it is a real important part of the process for me. There is a very fuzzy line between my work and my life…and for the most part I am ok with that because I love my work so much, but other than work, I love music, collecting art, and just being with friends laughing.
Vignettes: How did you get to that point? I know you have a background in painting and was curious where / when the crossover began for your current work?
Brian Paquette: I went to school for painting but mostly focused on conceptual work and art history, doing installations that married all of this. I graduated and if I remember correctly, was thinking about and trying to get jobs in the retail design world…places like anthropologie or ralph lauren, doing windows and the like. That never panned out and so I started working for an interior design firm in Newport for a bit before deciding it was time to get off the island. There has been and will always be this hungry art school kid in me in everything I do. I want to constantly infuse our work with that spirit as much as possible, hence why I am so drawn to the arts here in Seattle and supporting it professionally as well as personally. I talk all the time about a “creative conversation”…this basically means that I want to instill in creatives that whatever they do can be a part of creating a better foundation for what is to come, for themselves or for the future. Art shouldn’t be seen as something that is far out, or unobtainable.
Vignettes: Who are some of the artists you are most inspired by currently?
Brian Paquette: oh so many! This is hard! Frank Stella, Chris Burden, Uta Barth, Brian W. Ferry, Guido Guidi, Richter, basically everything I saw in Amsterdam last summer. I am inspired by so much. I love architecture too and Vincent Van Duysen and John Pawson do things to spaces that is beyond words. Furniture designers like Perriand and Jeaneret as well. so much!
Vignettes: Whose work do you collect? I heard about a ceramic collection you have and would love to know what other pieces you have collected over the years.
Brian Paquette: I will begin by saying that a relationship to things as just something to have and collecting does not interest me at all. At the core of what we do in work at the firm is buy things for people and that can get me down a lot…thinking about consumption and people’s relationship with things…hence why we strive to work with as much American made goods as possible. I like to be able to call anyone on the phone who is making things for our clients…this translates into the work I collect. With ceramics…well to be honest, I flunked ceramics 1 in college three times before passing to graduate…same goes for photo…this is probably why I am drawn to these styles so much. Ceramics is so tactile. In any piece that I am attracted to, I can see the artists hand. I am very much into and have collected works by Ian McDonald, Cody Hoyt, Katy Krantz, Ben Medansky, Morgan Peck to name a few. My most recent have been a few pieces by ER Studio…stunning simplistic work. I love drawing and photography as well, some of my favorites in my collection are pieces by Joe Rudko, Megumi Shauna Arai, Serena Mitnik-Miller, Brian, W Ferry, Jeremy Miranda, Malin Gabriella Nordin…and a bunch of others too… I rotate a lot of it depending on mood and well…I change my house a lot…its in my blood to move things around and try new layouts.
Vignettes: As a designer, what are your thoughts / advice for individuals incorporating art within their home?
Brian Paquette: Go slow. It’s not about money…let’s get that out on the table. It’s about connection and how it transports you out from your shoes into another place and time. I am big into sense memory and art does that. Don’t buy art to fill a space…heck most of my art is leaning on the floor or a bookshelf, because I never intended it for a specific space.
Vignettes: What do you consider when selecting art?
Brian Paquette: Mostly what I said above…but I do like to try to connect to the artist in a personal way, it can seem too much like business otherwise. It’s truly visceral for me and there is no separation for me between being in a gallery seeing priceless master works and being in someone’s living room studio in Seattle, going through sketches. The fact that people are inspired around me is enough.
Vignettes: If you could own any works of art, what would they be? / Any works you’re lusting after right now?
Brian Paquette: Oh goodness…thats a tough one. I really like the fine art works the Doug Johnston is doing now. In terms of masters in the art world though…I have my list in my head…Albers, Barth, On Kawara, too long of a list.
Vignettes: Do you have daily or weekly rituals that you find important for you to take part in?
Brian Paquette: Well, at work we have what we call Friday input days, this was an idea I stole from my good friend Kate who owns a creative agency here in Seattle, she said and I am paraphrasing…we output Monday- Thursday and on Fridays we input. We visit local artist studios, furniture makers, lighting designers, galleries or just have some new fabric rep’s come in the office…sometimes Ill bring in a new book I have dog-eared. It’s important to me to instill to my staff that this job isn’t 9-5…and more importantly that it’s not a job, that it’s a lifestyle, yes we have our separation from of it of course and that’s healthy, but I want to breathe and see art and creativity all of the time and be immersed it. Interested is interesting.
Vignettes: What do you find to be important here in Seattle creative community and the world at large?
Brian Paquette: Connection and support. We are a small crowd here…and right now all eyes are on Seattle. Anyone that wants the attention and is doing good work can have it. Our collective humility will keep us honest but we must strive to level up constantly to what is going on outside our city. I love going to shows and seeing familiar faces and the fact that a platform like Vignettes exists is a testament to our ability to help each other out. There is so much change going on in Seattle right now…and the rest of the world. I think as artists and art supporters we have a chance to inspire people to slow down a bit.
EXPORTED: Megumi Shauna Arai in Komagane, Japan Pt. 2
The property my father grew up on, among rice fields and mountains, has been in the Arai family for four generations. I found albums upon albums of old photographs dating back to the turn of the century.
A photograph of my Aunt as a little girl in the 50’s.
The view to the left when walking out of the house and onto the road. The tanbo (rice fields) were not planted yet. I remember childhood summers catching little green frogs in these fields with my sister.
My father, grandfather, grandmother and aunt in the 60’s.
EXPORTED: Megumi Shauna Arai in Komagane, Japan
Megumi Shauna Arai is a half Japanese and Jewish Artist who grew up between the Pacific Northwest and Tokyo. Her work explores biracial identity, intimacy, imperfection and freedom. She recently flew to Japan and then to NYC for personal and job related trips. We asked her to send us some images she captured along the way and to share a bit of her journey outside of the region.
My grandfather in Japan passed. I flew back in a matter of two days to be with my father and his side of the family. It had been seven years since I was last in Japan. I sat in airplanes, trains and buses for a majority of the time, but there was a vast amount of movement in the landscape both outside the window and inside me.
I woke up at dawn, alone in my father’s little bachelor pad in Tokyo, after flying in the night before. The light was soft and warm, the city was still quiet.
The Sea between, inside and around.
My father grew up in the country side of Nagano Prefecture. It was another 6 hours of trains and buses to reach his hometown where the family was holding the funeral. Though it was April it snowed.
A Complex Machine | The Work of Aidan Fitzgerald
Essay by Rich Smith | Photographs by Megumi Shauna Arai
Aidan Fitzgerald’s work ethic approaches insanity. So it’s no surprise that entering his studio apartment in Capitol Hill feels like that moment in the movie where the crazed inventor switches on his light to reveal a workshop bustling with perpetual motion machines and bubbling beakers.
In the apartment, art and parts of art lie everywhere. Half-finished abstract paintings lean up against the walls. Books splay out on the couch. His Risograph, a printing device that resembles a copy machine, rests against a wall. Even his records, turntable, and Nintendo 64 seem to be part of a project he’s got going on.
As Fitzgerald gives me the tour, he explains that he splits his apartment into three separate zones of work. A small, windowless room he calls “The Shed,” houses all his materials and tools. His kitchen table doubles as a drawing table, and he’s reserved the larger living room area for painting. When he decides to work on something, he simply walks into The Shed and selects a few tools that excite him. If he’s selected drawing tools, then he shuffles into the kitchen. A brush in his hand sends him to the living room.
Juggling so many projects at once didn’t used to be the norm for Fitzgerald. Back in 2011, when he was completing his B.F.A. at the University of Washington, he would focus all of his emotional and artistic energy into one, giant, project. At the time he was under the impression that the man-hours and rawness he put into each piece would somehow show through in the work. He describes a painting of great ambition, a big drawing of Freud and his daughter that he scraped up, drew over, and layered with paint for months and months. That painting now carpets the floor of The Shed.
“After a while I realized that if you keep whittling a log, eventually you’re gonna end up with a wood chip,” Fitzgerald says. “One day I looked around at my studio and thought ‘Gah, I have so many wood chips.’”
Enter the Risograph, the solver of the wood chip issue. The device, as Fitzgerald puts it, “is the funky little brother of the letterpess.” Like a photocopier, the machine scans an image and produces an ink copy, but the effect looks more like a screen print than a Xerox. To create a piece, Fitzgerald takes an image—a collage he’s constructed out of cut-up personal photos, say, or a drawing—and runs it through the machine. Now that he’s got several copies of the same image, he starts experimenting with different treatments. He’ll draw all over the image with a pencil. He’ll try paint. He’ll see what it looks like dipped in water. Because he has so many copies of an image he likes, he can whittle away as much as he wants and still have a log at the end of the day.
The Risograph also serves as an art-making tool in and of itself. He basically paints with the thing: “When the scanning light is moving, I move the image with it so that it warps and smudges the image,” Fitzgerald says. He used this process to create Neighborhood / Unwind, his piece for Vignettes Collection. The red part that looks like a broad brushstroke is actually a collage of different scenes he smudged together on the machine. He shows me three different treatments of that image: “I fiddled with some colored pencil. Then I drew a cartoon weasel and thought ‘Whaaaat? Why??’ Then I experimented with broad black lines and thought they worked. It’s a tornado. It’s a prison cell. It’s a landscape. It’s a radiator. It’s a cavern. It’s a gunstock.”
Fitzgerald also employs the Risograph to make his own short-run comics and books, all of which are informed by his early training in painting. Painting offers him a set of skills, impulses, and pleasures he uses to push against the strict constraints of comics.
“I don’t really make good comics. I’m not a cartoonist,” Fitzgerald is quick to say. “Most of the comics I do make are less comics and more like sequenced images. It’s less like you’re watching a movie and more like you’re sitting on the couch at 3 a.m. and you’re strung out, flipping through channels.”
His “lists,” a kind of comic strip / painting hybrid, evoke this channel-flipping mood. The lists are a number of disconnected, distinct drawings that use the same imagistic vocabulary. They look as if he went into a comic book, exploded it, and then gathered all the pieces and laid them all out into a line. Like a haiku, each drawing makes one “move.” In the case of a haiku a leaf might become a butterfly wing or a mountain might shrink in a dewdrop. In Fitzgerald’s drawings, a pattern will reveal itself or a juxtaposition will emerge and then at that moment he’ll abandon the piece, as a painter might, satisfied with having made a move he could feel.
His interest in poetry adds even more tools to his shed. In recent work, Fitzgerald takes poetic rhetorical devices such as anaphora and refrain and breaks them over the gridded rhythms of paneled comics. With this process he produces surreal-ish and lonely full-page compositions that repeat several images until a concrete feeling emerges.
In the future, he plans to sustain that lyrical play over the course of a much longer work called Tuesday in Othrwrld. Blending rhetorical techniques and skills from several different genres in order to create an epic lyric comic strikes me as bold, challenging, and potentially really fucking cool. One thing’s for sure: he’s got the tools and the gumption to do it.
MEGUMI SHAUNA ARAI | SILENT MOMENTS
Interview by Aidan Fitzgerald | Photographs by Andrew Waits
Whatever a photograph sounds like, Megumi Arai’s sound like the exact moment two people stop talking in an empty warehouse. Her photographs sound like your bed after you’ve both gone to work, they sound like waiting. Megumi’s work is figurative, but she refers to it as abstract portraiture: the faces are often obscured or turned away from the camera, draped in shadow or hidden altogether. “A lot comes out when the camera is there. But then I hide it. I know how that person looks and feels and sees, but the reason why I hide it is because each person is completely unique. By obscuring these certain elements of the human, it could become anybody. It allows people to come into the work.”
Megumi’s work delicately captures the precise moment when her subject ceases to be a person – a “self” – and becomes a gateway for us to enter into the photo. In this manner, her work investigates just what it is to be ourselves, and allows us to try out another self, if only for that moment of the photo.
Although I’ve known Megumi for years, I have never seen her in the studio. I’ve seen her shoot before, at events and such, but that’s documentation, that’s taking pictures. When she’s taking pictures she glides through the crowd, exchanges hellos with just about everybody there, hugs and laughter, gotta move on, need a shot of that guy over there.
When she’s in the studio, that’s something different. I have never seen Megumi in the studio, in her element, on a shoot, but when I ask her about it her eyes go wide and her voice gets smoother. “I don’t like to be in complete control, because it feels weird, it’s not natural and you don’t get the best photographs. But I do feel out each person, and I do generally give very specific direction. Within that direction, it’s kind of like this push and pull game. It’s practicing being able to shed control, because with each person it’s totally different, there is so many variables… the quietness on that set. I work in complete silence.”
Megumi’s methodical practice is evident in the precision and depth of her work. She works mostly with a centralized composition; each figure is balanced in the center of the photograph. Her camera seems to focus more on the texture of skin than on the skin itself. Hair becomes an abstract shape, a form entirely separate from the body it covers. The shadows hold a deep velvet black, the figures are constructed from some material more dense and dry than flesh.
“The work is less about ‘who is that person?’ and more like what does this person represent. Each person looks at the photograph or the piece and they decide the piece represents. And what they believe that piece represents says more about that person than the piece.”
A while back, I walked into Vermillion, a bar in Seattle with a large artspace in the front section. Towards the back of the gallery section, I saw two women furiously painting over a huge portrait of Megumi. Thick black paint dripped down the photo, while Megumi stood next to the performance. Members of the audience were invited to paint over the portrait. After Megumi’s face was completely covered, another portrait was revealed. She told me the piece was about rebirth, about how we let other people silence us. Our identities are not such mutable objects. They cannot be covered with paint, no matter how thick. Identity and the ideas of the self are central in her work.
“We are objects, the human body is a sculpture. I like the silent moments. I like to make silent work, maybe because I’m so loud. That is a real part of me that maybe I don’t express as much. I think that my photos explore that silence in me… going back, in my history, I didn’t have the ability to be alone. Translating that into my inability to be quiet. But my need to be alone, my need to be quiet. Wanting those things, finding great value in those things, but being so fearful of them too. And trying to recreate those things in my images.”
Serrah Russell | Scraps
“I don’t want to know the answer; I want to feel the question.” // Serrah Russell.
The halls of the Klee Building smelled of weed and bubblegum as I walked them on my way to Russell’s apartment, which, as is the case for many in a rent-hiked city, also serves as her studio. Russell has no explanation when I ask her about the funny combo of smells in the hallway, but is quick to offer water, iced water, tea, iced tea, a place to sit, anything I need. She gives me the tour. If you step out onto her balcony and look west, you can see a sweeping view of Elliott Bay, its expanse of blue, its islands and mountains that are easy to confuse with clouds. Look due north and you can see a wall of other condo windows. Living rooms with the television off. A dude in a Facebook t-shirt just standing up. Couches with nobody on them. And to the east is downtown Seattle with its pile of towers marching up to Capitol Hill. Mountains and buildings, street lamps and trees, garbage and gold.
On top of all that she’s got these amazing desk lamps that look as if they could have been recovered from a sunken ship’s captain’s quarters. It’s at this desk where she puts in most of her hours. A framed piece by Stand Up Comedy above her desk reads: “I’m Working Hard to Make Art Come Easier,” which seems to be the mantra of her newfound routine. “Every morning I force myself to sit here and work for an hour. I even allow myself to feel bored if I need to.”
She sounded like she was doing her best to hold back a Virginian accent—echoes of twang and gentry—and the hard work ethos she’s adopted reminds me of the protestant ethics pumped into the young boys and girls of my hometown in the Midwest, but she’s lived in Washington her whole life. As a conversationalist, she’s a quick talker. Her thinking is discursive—ideas fracture, and then she loops back to complete them. And its here, in the way in which the English language courses through her, where the connection between her thinking processes and her art-making process seem most apparent to me. Indeed, Russell admits to being a heady creator: “I spend so much time finding the fragments, thinking about them, matching them up, creating them, discarding them, and then repeating this process again and again.” Though an individual piece might only take a few moments to construct, so much thinking and failure precedes a given piece that each seems to hold the weight of hours of work.
In her collages Russell upends our sense of scale and of likeness: warm hands root mountains in air, pleather shares a line with lace, hotel hallways fill with turbulent water–or are they clouds? Her work reveals an eye drawn to weaving together seemingly disparate images. She’s got an eye that sees the limb in a limb, the high ridge in a window still, and the maple leaf in a Dick’s burger wrapper tumbling down the street. When she jams a log next to the wrist of a disembodied limb, she’s opening up radiances of relation between objects. In her more abstract work she delights in jamming together textures that don’t often share a stage, and playing with angles in a way that blurs the line between the image and the frame of the piece.
As far as subject is concerned, she seems most interested in exploring human experience through natural elements. “Everyone knows what a tree is. So a landscape can allow a commonality of experience, where the viewer can bring her own thing to it. I suppose I could show someone’s sad face, but I’d rather show a tree that’s degraded with all its leaves blown off.” Her generosity toward the viewer extends to her treatment of these landscapes, too: “I like that landscapes feel simultaneously solid and yet constantly in flux. It feels permanent and totally not, somehow.” By not directing us one way or another, we viewers are kept in this same kind of flux, which empowers us to take our own paths of interpretation and appreciation. In this way, her clipped and minimal landscapes give us space to create our own vast and detailed countries.
These fragments, she claims, are not worlds but are of a world. And this idea hits on another of her obsessions: absence and presence, the way in which something that’s there indicates something that isn’t there, or vice versa. “You don’t always get to keep everything, you know? But you do get to keep a part, and I’m interested in what you can tell with that little part.”
Lately, though, she’s been thinking about going big, making larger pieces that pop off the page—but she’s reticent. “I haven’t been making large pieces because I think that the “bigger equals better” thing is an idiotic idea. It’s kind of macho. But then I think, ‘Is my work smaller because of what it is, or is it because of a lack of having seen other female role models of this sort of thing?’” She shows me a version of a piece she did for Portland Center Stage, a large collage of body parts done in greyscale. Everything in the piece has its opposite pair: black and white, hard lines and soft lines, smooth and rough textures, masculinity and femininity: the piece explores the very question that worried her about making it in the first place. If she plans to continue to bring to her larger works this level of sophistication and thought, then I say blaze on ahead, sister.