There have been hints of the serious painter lurking inside the witty one. An atmospheric Rush painting of a bathroom window made it into the Arizona Biennial a few years back, and the light flowing over its multi-colored tiles was strangely compelling.
Still, Rush's one-person show at the Tucson Museum of Art is a revelation. He's deployed the technical skills hinted at in the enigmatic bathroom window. His conté crayon drawings are in the Old Master style, rendered in limited palettes of ochre and earth green and gray, pierced by an unearthly light. Rush's mastery of old-fashioned technique, so out it's in, would all by itself be worthy of praise. Joined to his extraordinary subject matter, it makes for art that's astonishing.
The Lost Portraits are pictures of children most people never see. The 17 children in the 17 drawings have serious disabilities: skulls pushed and pulled in every direction, eyes that look out vacantly through narrow slits of flesh, legs that never grew into anything more than soft flaps of skin, muscle-less arms as thin as pencils. Rush has not shied away from these children's physical reality, but he's rendered them in a reverential classical style.
"Christopher" sits cross-legged on the floor, his spindly arms propping him up in perfect symmetry. Buddha-like, eyes cast down, this young boy quietly contemplates the pieces of skin he got instead of legs. His skin is an unhealthy mix of gray and yellow, barely tinted by rose, but his face glows.
All of the children radiate the same transcendent light. "Brandon," a teen caught in profile, raises up a graceful hand, the light pouring out of his face. "Stephanie" is wrapped in a beautifully rendered silver cloth, its threads shining with all the splendor of a queenly stole. Working from life and from photographs, Rush must have used studio lights, but he's successfully made all the kids generate their own.
Rush met his subjects by volunteering with Third Street Kids, a performing arts troupe that welcomes kids of assorted abilities and disabilities. Like the company, which helps to transform kids' lives through art, Rush wanted to make the kids part of an art form that has never included them. Portraits throughout art history have typically celebrated the conventionally beautiful, or else changed the homely into the handsome for a fat fee. Modern advertising keeps up the convention, relentlessly transmitting images of the gorgeous to go along with its pitches for cars and soap suds. With his physically imperfect kids, Rush succeeds in upending both traditions.
There's a voluptuous stillness about his pictures, the children caught forever in gestures redolent with meaning. "Sonia" and "Jeffery" both raise their hands aloft in Christ-like blessings. If there's nobility, there's heartache too. The ordinary things of the children's lives -- a boy's favorite navy T-shirt, the little girl's orange tank top -- emphasize that they're kids like any other, but their medical equipment says silently that their lives are different nevertheless.
A viewer doesn't know what the future holds for these children, but some seem like brief messengers from another life. "Michael" appears only tenuously tethered to earth by his bright blue respirator. "Steven" lies in a hospital bed. He has no legs to speak of and his hands are partially formed; a pillow holds up his big head. Gazing out at the viewer, he looks infinitely weary of this life.
The show is hung on elegant burgundy walls, separated from the rest of the museum by a black drape. One viewer criticized the segregation in a guest book, saying it mirrored the secrecy that typically limits the life of the disabled. Point taken, but the installation also serves to rivet the viewer's attention and minimize the noisy distractions of the museum. (When did TMA start blaring a radio?) Here, finally, in this hushed place, these children take center stage.
The Lost Portraits, by Chris Rush, continues through Sunday, April 2, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 Monday through Saturday, and free on Sunday. For more information, call 624-2333.