Joe Rudko told me that his show Same as it ever was (yes, based off that Talking Heads song, "Once in a lifetime") at Greg Kucera Gallery could actually be called Twice in a lifetime, which is clever. Working with found photography that he gets from friends, markets, and donations, the Seattle artist intervenes in some way—through drawing, collage, paint—so he can connect the past with the now. Coming from a time that's sandwiched between digital and physical photography, Rudko is interested in how these two mediums inform each other.
“There are certain things you can understand through making things with your hands," Rudko explained to me. "That can be a really valuable experience and help you understand why digital things are built that way."
“I’m looking at these old photographs that are 50 or 100 years old and am seeing them as being really relevant to me now,” Rudko told me. “Maybe they are sparking ideas about social issues that are going on today or was on the news last week or that morning… The things that feel so new and radical today have been around forever but we’re just looking at them a bit differently now.”
You can understand what he means by that when you stand in front of his collage “Authority Figure.” It's composed of portraits of Arcadia, CA’s police force from the ’50s. He tells me he has an algorithm for where each square goes, a system for evenly spreading out the photograph. Look closely and you’ll notice all the bottom left corners are stacked up against one another, which is true of the bottom right corners as well. The result is a composite image of 25 people in one—this authority figure is white and male. Rudko isn't necessarily critiquing the individual officers in the photograph, but the structure as a whole. I like to think of this mega-cop in the collage as exploding or falling in on itself.
While I understand the impulse to call Rudko’s work trippy—full disclosure: I did in a short blurb I wrote about it for the paper—I think it's an inaccurate word to use, especially once you really sit with his images. Trippiness implies surreality or unreality, but Rudko’s creations are firmly planted in the real and mundane. His collages make order out of the chaos of memory.
Take, for example, his collage “Smile.” A grid of 100 photographs that are all the same size and come from a wide range of time (roughly the late '70s to early 2000s), Rudko cut around each smile, peeling off the entire the image save for the flash of teeth, leaving the mouths their integrity, preserving the sense of place of the figures in each photo. If a figure wasn’t smiling in a photo, their mouth was not included. It’s a way of isolating a specific subject, how a photograph can also be a selective memory that only focuses on the positive. Take a step back and you'll see all the different tinges of color, a result of the photos being printed on different types of paper. A further step back and you'll see something even more familiar—swiss cheese.
This idea of manipulating the physical to evoke the digital comes through at various points in Rudko's show. In his aptly named "Blue Wave," he captures the motion of the ocean, taking a regular picture of an ocean horizon and slicing it into tiny triangles that then form a perfect sine wave of blue. In his intervention in “Clover,” he splices an old photograph into four triangles, its drawn hinges recalling that lucky four-leafed plant and also a glitchy picture that hasn’t quite loaded on a webpage.
“The past and the present are linked. Shit’s just cycling around and around and around and sometimes when things feel like these big advancements it’s just sort of ‘We’ve figured out a new way to make a book, we found a new way to take a picture, we found a new way to make art,’” he explains. “But at its core, it might be saying the exact same thing. It’s just we now have different materials we’re pushing together to say the same thing.”
In order to get to Rudko’s show, you must navigate your way through Anthony White’s Smoke and Mirrors in the front of the gallery. Rudko’s work stands in quiet contrast to White’s bombastic and colorful plasticky works which seem to capture millennial reflection. Meanwhile, Rudko's collages are literally composed of the past—black and white, grey, and sepia are threaded throughout his work. And yet, there’s something about Rudko’s work that is just as loud and entrenched in now. It blooms in front of you slowly. The two artists' works, in a way, are talking to each other. Digesting similar things but composed differently. You just have to figure out how to listen, or rather, look.