Joe Rudko, San Juans, 2018, found photographs on paper, 38 x 50".

Joe Rudko, San Juans, 2018, found photographs on paper, 38 x 50".

Joe Rudko

Joe Rudko, San Juans, 2018, found photographs on paper, 38 x 50".

The technique of photomontage entered the vernacular of modern art in 1916, at the hands of the German Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield. Over the years, artists in every era and region, from Hannah Höch to Aleksandr Rodchenko to Wangechi Mutu, have adopted the practice of splicing old images into new meanings. Among the most recent of these is Joe Rudko, a young Seattle-based artist who brings elegant, trippy nuances to the twentieth-century form.

In Two Point Perspective, 2018, Rudko used fragments of vintage photographs, ripped into small strips or blocks, to create a simple architectural drawing of a house. Aligning the fragments into straight lines, he describes walls and a roof receding toward a horizon, framed by a thin shape that resembles a hand mirror. The fragments are mostly too small to decipher, but a few details come through, including distant foliage, water, and a length of pipe. The subject matter feels insignificant, however—or, rather, significant explicitly for its illegibility, serving mainly to strand the viewer with the architectonic superstructure, pondering a geometry of unreadable visual shrapnel. If one assumes photos can be viewed as paused time, and photomontage thus as a manipulation of time, the house sketch becomes a metaphor for the fragmentary blueprints with which one builds the remembered world.

In Scribble, 2017, Rudko applied the same technique but aligns the photo fragments into a single, tangled chain, or uncoiled rope. Depicted within the fragments are found lengths of line—electrical wires, more pipes—that act as guiding tracks, connecting to one another in a continuous stitch from beginning to end. Culled from unrelated source material, the overall scribble implies an associative train of thought, or a meandering thread of reminiscence, ever flowing. Borderline, 2018, on the other hand, formatted cropped sections into a maze, generating more anxious feelings as the stuff of lost time becomes trapped in a right-angled cage. In all the works on view, the subject of memory—memories lost and memories reconstructed—supplied both material and meaning.

In two larger, three-by-four-foot works, the artist fabricated grids from sliced, interwoven source photos. Blue Machine, 2016, is built from details of automotive images, such as steering wheels and engines, drawn from cyanotypes and whittled down into squares. These units collect densely in the middle of the piece, thinning into blank tan-and-beige passages at the edges and top of the frame. From afar, the resulting image appears watery, reflective, like a pond surface broken by a slight wind, while up close it becomes a jumble of fractured automotive data. Looking at it, a viewer might feel that his brain is under examination, the soft machinery being pressed with hectic, disorganized information and then released.

San Juans, 2018, was a looser grid of the same scale, composed of disassembled vintage landscapes recording the emerald splendor of the islands off the Northwest coast. Among the visible details are twinkling water, luxuriant trees, flotation devices, and sky, all objects of summer nostalgia, yellowed into Kodachrome hues. The nostalgia turns strange, though, when rearranged in this fragmented form—as if the memory had been captured by the compound eye of a bug.

Rudko coaxes a range of distinctive effects from the medium of photomontage, always with precision and polish. But whether making a cute collage in the shape of a cat or augmenting photos with interesting penmanship, he brings a current of poignancy to his practice as well. As the physical material of photography disappears into the oblivion of screens, the raucous photomontages of yesteryear—the Dadaist poetry of confusion or the Constructivist cry of political consciousness—become increasingly more difficult to produce. Rudko’s art of splicing has become an artisanal practice, a needlepoint of the digital era.

Jon Raymond