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The Meta-Modernist John Rudel

By Betsy DiJulio

If like me, you think of the artist John Rudel in terms of his muscular monumental black and white drawings, “The Metagrid Project” will, at first, appear to be the work of someone else. However, gallery owner-director, Lorrie Saunders, notes that this body of work—termed “meta-modernist” by the artist—revisits themes that Rudel was pursuing in graduate school, bringing him full circle. Yet, she asserts, it is very much “of the moment.”

Indeed, the ever-emerging ways and degrees to which our lives are intersected and interconnected by` digital grids could scarcely by more pertinent. But we didn’t arrive here in a vacuum, and the work in this exhibition acknowledges, through a variety of pictorial and layering strategies, devices, and mixing of media, art historical and societal antecedents.

Obsessively built-up and physically worked-over, Rudel marries laser and inkjet transfers with the likes of graphite, colored pencil, acrylic paint, spray paint, aluminum tape, and all manner of collaged materials, including found objects. At times, various styles of grids are layered over the dominant imagery, while at other times the grids are built up onto the support to create a relief texture beneath the dominant imagery. Other times the transfers are “tiled” together to create a grid on top of which are overlaid big expressively painted pixels or collaged squares and rectangles of other materials and imagery. But sometimes, as in the subtractive “Drywall” drawings or the rusted nail prints, a non-objective, though referential, grid is the dominant imagery. Still other times, Rudel employs an elaborate combination of materials and devices.

Driving Rudel through it all is the desire to embrace and reflect on old and new. The results are a complex mash-up (I mean that in a positive way) of studio painting and digital traditions and evolution. In a variety of inventive process-oriented ways, Rudel plays the “personal, slow, reflective” act of painting—whether precise or expressive—off of the “collaborative, quick and immediately gratifying” nature of photographic digital manipulation.

And along the way he collapses together a dizzying array of references, some more obliquely than others. Motherboards, circuitry and pixilation are present and would be expected. Perhaps more surprising are patterns that appear appealingly quilt-like or tribal. Ditto, those that reference floor plans and city maps (the latter seen especially in the small square “Drywall” relief drawings).

The work divides fairly neatly into six subgroups: “Grape Vine” (the large diptych that launched this exhibition), “Archetype” (1-4), “Cloud” imagery, “Crowd” imagery [including RGB (1-3)], “Nail Drawings,” and “Drywall Drawings.” Especially rich in both form and content is the “Archetype” series of old photographs transferred onto squares of stainless steel via laser print transfers. So subtle and evocative, this marriage of metals (both the stainless steel support and the metallic tape); warm and cool tones with beautiful aged patinas; and nostalgic imagery broken up by linear circuit-like paths hits all the right notes of past and present: a clash, yes, but a harmonious one.

Curious about other directions Rudel might have visited under the rubric of the grid, I visited his website where I found, in some cases, works that appealed more than some of the exhibited pieces though, granted, online images do not tell the whole tale. Still, I found more visually compelling—and less redundant—than the “Crowd”/”RGB” pieces an exploration of the grid within (removed “a”) compositions that break out of that grid, as seen in a piece like “In the Garden.”

Perhaps even more, I responded to the pieces that appear to integrate Rudel’s beautiful drawings as dominant within the imagery culled from other sources. While the laser and inkjet transfers are perfectly appropriate and even quite lovely (especially in the “Cloud” pieces) given the topic he is exploring, I tend to feel that a combination of the transfers with Rudel’s masterful drawing is perhaps the most visually engaging. But such is also uniquely able to address the evolution of image making on both universal and highly personal levels, rendering the pieces even more “self-referential,” an intention Saunders ascribes to this body of work.

Why does Rudel feel it is important to exhibit this work in all its wondrous variety? By way of an answer in an interview with Saunders, he shares a quotation from Jaron Lanier, one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2010: “it is up to the artists to save the world by creating beauty and joy so that we don’t wind up using technology to kill each other.” Surmises Rudel, “So maybe I’m trying to save the world?”

Rudel is a widely exhibiting artist and Associate Professor of Art at Virginia Wesleyan College where he also serves as Curator of Exhibitions. A piece of his public art can be seen on the Harbor Park Light Rail Station in Norfolk. Learn more about his work at www.johnrudel.com.