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Thorn In The U.S.A.

Artist Eriks Rudans Celebrates 50 Years of Pricking American Mores.


THE TUMBLEDOWN ADOBE in the barrio gives no hint of the bounty of art inside. Its stucco is stained and crumbling, its front yard bare of the slightest trace of cooling vegetation. A couple of nearby empty lots, slated for gentrification, contribute to the air of baked desolation.

Go inside the frayed wooden door, though, and you'll find a wonderland of Eriks Rudans paintings and sculptures. This is Art with a capital A, work that takes on the big issues: The Seven Deadly Sins. Patriotism Gone Wrong. Dreams. Identity. Desire.

Twelve years' worth of artwork by Rudans the painter fills the hot living room, leaving Rudans the man only a narrow space for a single bed, a couple of chairs and a TV. A big painting of figures standing motionless and dream-like in a Rousseau-ian jungle leans against a wall, the topmost painting in a stack so thick that Rudans confesses he's not even sure of the condition of the paintings in the deepest layers. Several dozen drawings of faces--boldly colored saints with piercing eyes among them--rest against the opposite wall, and the two stacks almost meet in the center of the small room. A tiny airless room beyond--a former bedroom, perhaps--is the domain of a giant skeletal man and dog, carved, Rudans explains, out of "old redwood from my neighbor's fence."

Nor are the walls immune. A painted fat man gobbling up dollar bills (last seen at a Rudans show at Dinnerware some 18 months ago) is perched above the television, alongside an idyllic landscape with a man ogling a female nude. "I Dreamt I Was Thomas Hart Benton," it's called, and Rudans says it's an exact replica of a Benton work, only done in the trademark Rudans style: acrylic on board, layered with Prismacolor drawing and medium. On the opposite wall are wall reliefs, primitive carvings of human heads painted in dainty pastels.

"I'm doing art all the time," says the 67-year-old Rudans evenly, by way of explanation for the arty chaos amid which he lives. He has a cyclical strategy for acquiring art materials. "When I run out of painting supplies, I do sculpture. I work with recycled materials and also use new material, depending on what I have. I have a couple of friends who are great scroungers. When I sell a painting, I buy supplies."

A portion of all this art was carted off earlier this week to Etherton Gallery for a special three-day exhibition to be staged Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Eriks Rudans: Fifty Years in the U.S.A. is a one-man celebration that will exhibit about 15 big paintings, 30 drawings, three major sculptures and "a whole lot of small sculptures." The show's title refers to the Latvian immigrant's time in America. He and his parents and sister actually came over in the waning days of 1949, he confesses, from a displaced-persons camp in Germany, but he figured he'd let that detail slide in favor of the catchy title.

The unusual show and sale is the brainchild of his dealer, Terry Etherton, and his friend and former student, Tom Philabaum, who studied glass art under Rudans at the University of Wisconsin years ago. ("I never taught Philabaum anything," Rudans protests. "He was just cooking! Now he's a master.") Rudans periodically shows around town, at Etherton and formerly at Philabaum, and at Apparatus, Obsidian, Canyon Ranch and Dinnerware, but the good reviews he routinely gets have never translated into real money.

Etherton says he'll take no commissions from any sales this weekend.

"Eriks is one of my favorite people ever," he says. "He stays in his house and works. The paintings are piled up like lumber. He won't eat but he'll make art."

The artist's poverty is hard to miss. His stifling house is badly in need of repair, and the odor of varnish predominates in its crowded rooms. He has no telephone or vehicle, and his teeth are in want of dentistry.

"I don't make much money," Rudans acknowledges, "but I didn't want to do all the other stuff I'd been doing to support this habit."

Once upon a time Rudans was a tenured professor of art, back at St. Cloud State University in the Midwest. He had gotten a master's in art from Wisconsin, after a stint in the U.S. Army. He did guest teaching at any number of schools, including the Art Institute of Chicago. But he gave it all up--academe's steady paycheck, its modicum of professorial prestige, even the free studio space--on principle.

"I really don't think the university is the best place to teach art," he says. "It's only useful for those who are going to be artists anyway....There's always political stuff in art departments, and very little art. We used to do faculty shows every two years and some people couldn't even come up with enough art. Plus, everybody tends to buy into the mainstream."

So he left, in 1978. He spent a year in New York, then got a deal living in a California beach house in exchange for construction and upkeep. When that bit of luck ran out, he got a similar gig on a Sasabe ranch, and soon after moved on up to Tucson. For years, he had worked construction, done some engineering, whatever it took to support the art habit, but in Tucson he decided to put such work behind him. He managed to buy the barrio house in the late '80s before gentrification sent prices sailing, and devoted himself to making art. Despite his single-mindedness and his talent, he has never been a commercial success.

"I'm so blunt," he says. His sexual imagery alienates the public. He doesn't hesitate to make sexual images like the "Payday Madonna" above his bed, featuring a leering man and a prostitute with genitals exposed, or religious satires full of grinning, lascivious priests. A couple of times he participated in the Tucson Arts District Studio Tours and found his visitors shocked by such works as the "Payday Madonna." Years ago, an uproar erupted at Club Congress over a female nude hung over the bar. Even his endearing wooden dog sculpture is equipped with an erect penis.

And it's not just anatomical bluntness that bothers potential buyers. He takes on false piety in religious satires full of grinning, lascivious priests, and torpedoes capitalism run amok in devastating portrayals of the rich.

"I used to use a story when I was teaching," he says. "A big bug goes into a house. One guy screams, 'A creepy, big bug flew in here!' Another guy describes it, explaining the size of its wings and so on. The one only saw his fear and nothing else. The other actually saw it. It's like with art. People shut down before they even see it."

At age 67, precarious as his finances are, he has no plans to change.

"I have a hard time doing something thinking, 'This will sell.' A friend who does commercial work says to me, 'I don't understand why you do this. This will never sell.'

"But this is what I do."

Eriks Rudans: Fifty Years in the U.S.A. runs from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 13, 14 and 15, at Etherton Gallery, 135. S. Sixth Avenue. All prices will be reduced. For more information call 624-7370.

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