Long ago, Emily Post, that maven of manners for the would-be civilized, decreed that, ideally, you should behave around a disabled person the same way you would behave toward anyone else with no visible handicap. Important caveat: Never stare.
If that's the case, then artist Chris Rush has broken Ms. Post's cardinal rule repeatedly, even in his choice of title for the drawing retrospective at Mesa Arts Center, "Stare." The exhibition is composed of pieces from bodies of work owned and lent by 24 Arizona collectors. It includes 41 portraits of people Rush has drawn or painted over the past 15 years — some with both mental and physical disabilities. Rush's imperative invitation to stare, especially at the images of obviously disabled individuals, is the artist's way of encouraging viewers to confront and appreciate the unfathomed beauty and interest inherent in every human being, bar none.
In the past few years, the culture of disability has become increasingly popular, not to mention vocal. Books like Disability, Art and Culture, by Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein, have become required reading. Depictions of Franklin D. Roosevelt without his wheelchair or crutches have come under attack by the disabled community. Mr. Magoo, the loony, near-sighted cartoon character, has been demonized as being stereotypical, and Barbie has a new plastic playmate, Share a Smile Becky, who comes with her very own wheelchair.
Gone are the days of disability portrayed only as a medical model or object of morbid voyeurism and exploitation — like those captured by photographers Diane Arbus and Weegee or those in the film Freaks, a Depression-era drama about a traveling circus starring people with strange bodily and mental disabilities. Now, there's even a British sitcom called Cast Offs, an edgy mockumentary starring actors with disabilities playing characters with the same disabilities. The show pokes fun at reality TV and the way disabilities are generally portrayed.
Chris Rush has somehow managed to entirely escape issues of political correctness and disability activism in his beautifully intimate work. As he recently told his audience at MAC, "I'm an artist, an observer, not an activist. I have no agenda. These are not moral devices and this is not a dialogue with the disabled."
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His declaration bears out in the work on display, which is masterful in its technical execution, no matter what the media: conté crayon, which the artist calls "a strange cousin to pastels," pen and walnut ink (or supremely messy charcoal) on antique documents and letters, or chalk on 19th-century school slate board. Rush's work is also suffused with a simple yet majestic dignity that cannot be assailed or ignored.
The artist began drawing disabled subjects while a volunteer at a facility that treated children who have physical and mental challenges. Some of his sitters have never spoken and never will; some can do nothing for themselves, relying completely on caregivers. Case in point is Stephanie, the titular girl glorified in profile in a 2000 conté drawing, her lower jaw jutting out at an impossible angle, shoulders swathed in a satin wrap. In Jen (2006), a baby with a cleft palate and stumps for arms sits quietly upright with a golden crown on her head. And we see only the soles of enormous feet, with worm-like toes sticking out from gray curtains, of a man with gigantism in Vaudeville (2003).
Stylistically, Rush is all over the art-history map, and his sources scream out at the viewer. He notes that his influences are many, including Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), the Florentine master who was court painter to the powerful Medici family, and the "unflinching eye" of photographer Richard Avedon, whose vision is apparent in Yellow Sunglasses (2006), a three-quarters study of a blind albino boy sporting neon yellow sunglasses and leaning against a white door, his arms lifted and hands to the back of his head. We see touches of John Singer Sargent in the sketchy finish of the torso in Vamp (2008), compositional echoes of Whistler's Mother in John with White Pumpkin (2003) (from the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum), and the admirable exactitude of Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) in Crown (2006), a walnut ink drawing on an 1841 Italian real estate document that depicts a monkey with a skull strapped to its head.
Many of the images in the show recall formal European court portraits of historically important people. They are in keeping with the artist's belief that we've made the subjects of masterpieces like da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Sargent's Madame X into great divas, even though they are truly unknowable — as every person is essentially unknowable. "They're actually ciphers," says Rush. "They've kept their secrets for centuries. We project onto their serious faces our own stuff; we bring them to life and time." So, too, are the subjects in Rush's work unknowable. If nothing else, with quiet elegance they stand, frozen in time, as mute testament to the fact that unknowability is the very quintessence of being human.