Joe Rudko: The photographer’s eye

At PDX Contemporary, Joe Rudko pieces together an exhibition from 100-year-old photographs


The experience of seeing Album, a series of medium-scale photo assemblages by photographer Joe Rudko at PDX Contemporary, is a slow burn. Initially, it is difficult to be sure what you’re looking at and why it matters, but the work continues to unfold and astonish as you walk through the gallery.

In “Sky Through Trees,” which greets you on a near wall, Rudko pieces together torn black-and-white photographs featuring parts of trees in every conceivable state—leafy, bare, snow-covered—to create a puzzle-like composition. Solitary trunks, meandering limbs, and feathered deciduous branches fit together like a hundred memories recalled all at once, the darkness of the wood always offset against light clear skies. Rudko constructs a frame for the new composition out of the retained white borders of the photo pieces along its perimeter.

Joe Rudko, "Sky Through Trees", 2016, torn photographs on paper, 15" x 11"

Joe Rudko, “Sky Through Trees”, 2016, torn photographs on paper, 15″ x 11″

Rudko treats images of clouds, shadows, and water similarly in three other pieces—each assemblage offering a collective imagining of a single subject. The work takes on a remarkable dimension when you discover that every photo in the series came from a trove of thousands, taken between 1902-2005, that Rudko found in an abandoned shed in Washington. In each piece, the artist highlights an image or a theme that kept presenting itself as he was sorted through a century’s worth of snapshots. In this way, Album conveys what matters to us most.

Photographers have long experimented with ways to affect the materiality of the form. In recent months, Will Wilson (Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, Portland Art Museum) embedded one of his large-scale tintype portraits with LAYAR technology so that, viewed through an app-equipped phone, the subject of the photo comes to life in video. Max Cleary (Desperate Measures, Soltesz Fine Art, 2016) printed his photos on cement blocks, giving them substance and shape before re-photographing them. He also sculpted the surfaces of some of his photographs, giving them gentle texture and inviting us to touch them. Teresa Christiansen (Indifferent Horizons, Melanie Flood Projects) bent her photographs underneath frosted Plexiglas to give the impression of inexplicable movement and depth.

Rudko plays with materiality by giving us meticulously constructed assemblages that are much closer to objects than they are to photographs, the carefully torn pieces of photos lending a preciousness that a whole photo cannot communicate. Rudko uses his photographer’s eye instead of his camera to create masterful studies in color, composition, pattern, rhythm, and balance, giving us a new way to experience photography.

Joe Rudko, "Reflected Light", 2016, torn photographs on paper, 30" x 22"

Joe Rudko, “Reflected Light”, 2016, torn photographs on paper, 30″ x 22″

The first hint of the series’ scope hits you while standing in front of “Reflected Light,” which features rows of tiny imperfectly torn circles with a bright spot at the center of each. Rudko teases the viewer with just enough visual information to determine that the bright spots are camera flashes bouncing off living room window panes, TV sets from the decades when we put them on the floor, crappy mall art hanging in the background, and a vintage car’s chrome grill—a visual metaphor for what shines back at us when we point our cameras at the things we love.

One piece, which appears to be an abstract haze of muted greens, pinks, greys, and purples is, in fact, a pastiche of characterless white walls, colored only by the different chemistries used to develop photos in the last half of the twentieth century. It speaks to the passage of time, to the changes in culture that we don’t notice until years later, to the way an artist can make something transcendent out of something mundane.

The series is so aesthetically refined that the presence of a single 3D piece, a crude vase and flower made using the same assemblage technique, feels out of place. It is a small misstep in an otherwise seamless show, but the series would be more cohesive in its absence.

Album tells a uniquely American story about things we wanted to capture that now no longer exist, about our collective yearning, about the universality of place and human experience and desire.

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