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In conjunction with FotoSeptiembre USA, REM Gallery is currently exhibiting a 46-year retrospective of photography by UTSA Professor Kent Rush, who lived in San Antonio from 1976-79, when he set up the printmaking program at the now defunct San Antonio Art Institute, and then moved here permanently in 1982 to begin his current teaching position.
Although Rush holds BFA and MFA degrees in printmaking, he has considered photography to be his medium of choice since 1988. Yet, as the exhibition reveals with some very fine examples, he began taking photographs as a secondary interest in the late 1960s after purchasing a Nikon camera with several close-up lenses.
In Watch and Stamp (c. 1970), the earliest work in the exhibition, Rush used a close-up lens to magnify small everyday objects and create a composition related to the collages he was then making. Structured by arranging his grandfather’s pocket watch and a hand-cancelled postage stamp on a chessboard, the composition emphasizes simple geometric shapes, a format common to the 20th century Cubist collage tradition. These subjects associated with games and pastimes such as stamp collecting are conceptually tied to the medium of photography, which, at the time, Rush viewed as more a hobby than a discipline. The tiny scale of the photo seems particularly well suited to the intimacy of scrutinizing objects at close range, and astute observers will notice that the image of the postage stamp depicts the ships sailed by Columbus, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Before earning his MFA in printmaking from the University of Texas, Austin in 1979, Rush briefly attended architecture school. As he explored his newly adopted state of Texas while in graduate school, he scouted for interesting things to photograph and gravitated naturally towards architectural fragments and details. Examples include the steps, walkways, and clothesline structures that he framed with his camera in Clothesline (c. 1978) to create a geometric composition by capturing the lighter architectural elements silhouetted against the darker lawn of a San Antonio apartment complex.
In Gate (1983), a photograph of a Rockport pier that he shot a few years later, Rush used his camera effectively to explore the duality of compositional flatness versus illusionism, which was a dominant issue for abstract painters working in the 1950s-70s. In Rush’s photo, there is a crisp tension between the flatness of the horizon line and the gate, both of which are parallel to the picture plane, and the illusionistic perspective of the pier itself, which leads our eye deep into the composition.This pictorial incongruence is to some extent reminiscent of the irrational juxtapositions in paintings by the popular Surrealist artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967).
In the mid-1980s, purchased a Diana camera, which he continues to use to this day. A simple box camera, the Diana is a favorite among artists because it is prone to light leaks that can produce aesthetically interesting effects. Rush’s earliest images shot with this camera are of details of concrete walls and embankments. In Olmos Dam (1985), he transforms a small section of a wall surface into an abstraction that recalls the photographs of Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), who in the 1950s pioneered this approach of photographing wall details that resemble the agitated brushwork of Abstract Expressionist paintings.
To further enhance the textural effects of his photo, Rush printed the image using the process of toned cyanotype, which entails exposing a negative on a paper surface that has been treated with various chemicals that affect coloration. Rush, of course, was also making paintings at the time, so it was a natural transition for him to want to blur distinctions between photography and painting. Another way to do this was to join together separate large-scale prints to form a triptych, which he did in Overpass (1988), using three prints of an identical photographic image.
In 1988, the year he decided to devote his creative time primarily to photography, Rush was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Oaxaca, Mexico. Armed with his Diana camera, he continued photographing details of landscape, but now took an interest in stumbled-upon three-dimensional objects. In Untitled (Brick Bench) (1988-89) and Untitled (Lima Trunk) (1991), which was shot during a subsequent trip to Peru, Rush demonstrates his ability to imbue mundane objects with a sculptural monumentality, as well as with qualities of mystery and intrigue that stem from dim lighting.
Rather than use a chemical process to create painterly effects on the surfaces, this time Rush developed the negatives in the traditional format of gelatin silver print, and then used his own hand to distress the surfaces with scratches, abrasions, and stains that contribute to the works’ strong physical presence. To reinforce the immediacy conveyed by the surface imperfections and present the photos as if they were paintings, Rush printed the images five-feet-high and mounted the prints on aluminum.
Rush’s interest in simulating painting through photography continued well into the 1990s, when he ceased doctoring surfaces by hand in favor of a more subtle approach. Mounted on wood panels, the large scale triptych Untitled (Thin Curb) (1997) gains its aesthetic fortitude from the jarring effects of the borders between the three sections, as well as from irregularities along each print’s edges. Shot without using a tripod as the artist moved from spot to spot, the images do not line up perfectly, which causes a compositional tension to occur as we respond to the interruption of a line that logic tells us should be even.
Throughout the early years of the millennium, Rush returned to experimenting with a variety of printing processes, a move that reflects his training in numerous techniques of printmaking. His propensity for bringing strange or paradoxical overtones to sections of landscape is particularly evident in some of his smaller scale works in the mediums of ambrotype, where a negative produces a white image when printed on glass painted black, and collotype, a mechanical process similar to lithography. In the ambrotype Untitled (Square Head Patty) (2002), the stark contrast of the white image against the black background lends an eerie quality to a view of an unearthed foundation for a porch post, giving it the appearance of a gravestone or some kind of ritualistic marker. In Untitled (Mustang Series) (2004), where Rush embellished the printed surface by hand-applying chine collé, thick textures of entangled grapevines recall the enigmatic forests of the frottage drawings and grattage paintings by the Surrealist Max Ernst (1891-1976).
Rush’s more recent investigations involve revisiting earlier bodies of his own work, with the goal of re-presenting the imagery in some new or interesting way. In a series of drawings of old photographs, including Untitled (Rocky Road) (2013) and Laredo Benches (2016), Rush proves that he has not lost his knack for the careful and intricate mark making that is required to convincingly simulate the illusion of a photograph while working solely with graphite.
Especially engaging are Rush’s new collotypes, which he made by photographing studio objects that he has used in various art works over the years. For this project, Rush built a camera that can handle ultra-large format negatives, enabling him to scrutinize objects on a shelf with the same kind of clarity that was possible when he photographed the pocket watch and stamp with his first Nikon. Only rather than simulate the compositional flatness of a collage, as he did early on, he is again emphasizing sculptural volume. With their dramatic lighting and central iconic positioning, these odd ball artifacts from Rush’s personal collection simply beg us to want to know their stories.
The exhibition continues at REM Gallery through October 28. A mid-exhibition reception will be held on Saturday, Oct. 1 from 6-9 p.m.
Top image: Kent Rush at REM Gallery. Photo by David S. Rubin.