Raw and Refined
by Betsy DiJulio
Portfolio Weekly 07/29/07

Size matters. So does surface and scale.

Working most often in pastel on carved and textured drywall, John Rudel creates large classical, yet contemporary, realistic drawings of mundane objects such as a rake, a comforter, a man’s dress shirt and a child’s toy gun or action figure.

Skillfully drawn in dramatic foreshortening and muscularly modeled in tints and shades of gray with the occasional blush of warm and cool tones, the objects are a powerful presence.

The drawings’ heavily scarred and sometimes ripped surfaces lend to them a sense of history and mystery, though typically not in any overt way. However, when the preparation of the ground is more explicit, as with the occasional use of rectangular cut-outs and metallic tape, the result is generally less successful, looking a little forced.

With indeterminate relationships to their settings, the objects—like the intentionally levitating comforter—nonetheless seem visually unified with their grounds by virtue of Rudel’s expressive mark-making in the creation of both. In contrast to his rough grounds, his pastel drawing technique creates rich, smooth and velvety surfaces. The effect is a pleasing contradiction: raw yet refined.

This artist’s style of drawing, which amplifies an object’s formal topography—its convex and concave curves—creates compositions that simultaneously possess a feeling of sensuous movement and monumental stillness. The objects’ size and scale—many made even larger when presented as a diptychs—renders them icons of the ordinary.

In his approach to large scale everyday objects, Rudel’s work is vaguely reminiscent of Jim Dine’s tool drawings. (They even, to a lesser degree, recall Claes Oldenburg’s large-scale sculptures of commonplace objects.) Both Dine and Rudel make expressive drawings that are, in many ways, as much about the media as they are about the objects.

Still, every object is a carrier of meaning. The artist has written that he hopes these particular objects carry "the emotional vibration that inspired me to draw them." He has also hinted at meaning and metaphor in relation to them. While their specific stories and significance are elusive, Rudel does point us, as viewers, in some provocative directions in the way he combines and positions objects, as in Spill and Dip. A piece like Rake, with its dual emphasis on both a leaf and a rake—the former appearing exalted and the latter touchingly humble—seems to hint at big underlying ideas like the relationship of nature to culture.

A fairly new Assistant Professor of Art at Virginia Wesleyan, where he also serves as Curator of Exhibitions, this North Carolina native brings with him a respectable pedigree in the visual arts. Besides holding an MFA in Drawing and Painting from the University of Georgia, he has made his mark in the world of juried exhibitions, including the 2004 Mississippi Art Commission Artist Fellowship, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2002 New American Paintings Magazine MFA Annual Competition juried by former Guggenheim, NY director Lisa Dennison.

Based on this exhibition, Professor Rudel’s "object lessons" are a welcome addition to the artistic landscape in Hampton Roads.