Modular Abstraction: A Q&A with Judy Rushin

Practical necessity is Judy Rushin’s muse. Well, not exactly. Her Modular series of sculptural paintings are made to be disassembled and reconfigured again; site-specific works that can travel well. Individual modules are aggregated into compositions for new exhibition layouts, then stacked and shipped. They’re spatially and geographically untethered — mobile paintings for a mobile economy. Indeed, if practical necessity is the unintended muse of most projects (unless your name is Jeff Koons), Rushin’s Modular paintings offer the idea of practical necessity as an evocative conceptual and material framework. There’s a clear immediacy to them, perhaps because they reflect our own untethered geographies.

Judy was one of the independent artists exhibiting at the (e)merge art fair in D.C. a few weeks ago, and I recently caught up with her to chat about her work and her process.

Judy Rushin | Installation view of Modular series. Image courtesy of the artist.

Judy Rushin | from the Modular series, cast plastic, furniture lacquer, wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

Matthew Smith: Your Modular series are works that can be taken apart and reconfigured to be site specific just about anywhere. They travel well. In a way, they make me think about this idea of a modern mobile economy, where innovation is driven by people’s ability to pick up and move easily (like your paintings). I don’t imagine that you were thinking about socioeconomics when making these pieces, but I wonder how you think these ideas might be reflected in your work (or not), and what is it about creating modular compositions that you find so compelling?

Judy Rushin: Well, in fact I have thought about this aspect of the work because this whole project grew out of a practical necessity. Practical necessity is an idea that working class people are intimately familiar with, and who is driving the mobile economy but the working class? Not too long ago I was making painting installations with large canvasses. I live some distance from any major cities and shipping costs are prohibitive. So I began to imagine this modular system, inspired by modular architecture and furniture, that could be packed in several medium sized boxes but assembled to become as large as the situation required. I’ve talked about this before, how the practical needs of the studio practice inform my work, and how this, in turn, has become a thematic element of the work. So the work grew out of a practical need, but through that need I found an opportunity to engage my work and its audience with new meaning. Practicality is not an exciting subject but it’s a reality for most of us. How many of us can afford to make a twenty foot painting or ship a two ton sculpture? How many of us can afford to house either of these? I make work that comes out of the modernist tradition, which has among its baggage a lot of pretense and hubris. But re-thinking abstraction to engage the middle class or the mobile economy to use your term, in my opinion, gives the work its breath.

Judy Rushin | Carapace : Sewanee (from Modular series), cast plastic, furniture lacquer, wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

MS: There’s something very immediate about the materials you use in your Modular series. Can you tell me about these materials and about the materials you use in your Build series?

JR: Thank you. I want the materials to feel immediate, so to hear you say it is affirming. I use cast plastic to make the dotted panels in the modular series – the solid ones are sprayed with furniture lacquer on panel. My process is that I drill holes into a panel onto which I’ve already poured a layer of plastic, and then pour on another pigmented layer over the holes. Once that hardens I sand the panel down to reveal the dotted pattern. I’m interested in distancing myself from painterly gestures and indexing my body in a different way, like through the sanding marks and, since I don’t use a template, the slightly uneven spacing of the dots. The surfaces are completely flat, but the sanding dulls the sheen we’re accustomed to with plastic and gives a curious look to this otherwise ubiquitous material. The panels’ frames are built from untreated pine, with connection holes along the sides. Nothing is hidden.

The build series is literally about using panel and paint as mortar and brick. I’ve made a series of bricks with paint and canvas, and some paintings using my lacquered panels ‘glued together’ with pigmented epoxy or air dry clay. In the latter, clay and epoxy are stand-ins for paint.  I should add, if it’s not obvious by now, that my view of paint is broad and I consider any surface coating to be paint if used in the right context. Some of these build paintings were ephemeral and some were intended to be permanent. The air-dry clay wasn’t strong enough to hold the panels together, so I knew they would topple in a matter of hours or days. I enjoyed the entropy, which happened in the studio. I heard them collapse in the middle of the night and thought – “now there’s a modest group of paintings, dying in the dark.”

Judy Rushin | from the Build series, lacquer, pigmented polymer, wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

Judy Rushin | from the Build series, lacquer, pigmented polymer, wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

MS: It’s interesting that you say you are distancing yourself from painterly gestures. Do you think there’s something gestural about your materials then? Maybe “gestural”is the wrong way to put it, but there seems to be something evocative about the uneven spacing of the “peg holes,” or the uneven application of the clay in your Build series. Maybe these “imperfections” function similarly to a gestural brush mark.  

JR: I’m more interested in indexing my body in small, quiet, un-ostentatious ways. If you think about gesture as the way we carry ourselves through the work, then I think my body is adequately reflected. You can see it in the evidence of sanding, of slight misalignment. What I don’t want to do is gesticulate, or get emotionally carried away in making the work. It’s not that I want the work to be sterile or unemotional, but for me, emotion is effectively embodied in restraint. The clay in the build series and some of the other materials I use are simple and straightforward and evocative of play or work which diffuses the sobriety often associated with painting of this type.

Judy Rushin | Installation view. Build : column on the right. Image courtesy of the artist.

MS: You’ve mentioned Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, and Helio Oitica as influences in your work. I can see this in the deep fields of rich color in your work, and also in your hard-edged geometric compositions. Can you tell me a little bit about the dialogue that is happening between your work and the folks above?

JR: These three artists have been on my mind a lot lately. There is something about the way they all look (or looked) at modernist abstraction with an expanded view and in the process break down the austerity of that work. I love Helio Oiticia’s work and wish more of it was still in existence but much of it was lost in a fire after his death in 1977. Like many artists in developing countries he didn’t give a flip about New York, so his work is conceptually very rich and the materials are accessible and modest.  For example, Tropicalia explores the experiential through sculptural installation but with printed fabrics, 2x4s and gravel. He was thinking about the modernist aesthetic but he didn’t need a foundry or a crew to complete his investigation. I can really relate to this in my own work. Living in Tallahassee has its advantages in that I can afford plenty of studio space, I have time to work, and this availability of space and time affords me the luxury of free experimentation.  Oiticica’s Parangoles, wearable sculptures that pre-date Nick Cave’s sound suits by 25 years, were simply pieces of fabric, matting, and packing material that slipped onto and over the body. A lot of times work that frank and experimental has to happen outside of major cities. I differ from him in that I think more about the work’s relationship to architecture where he thought about its relationship to the body. I would like to figure a way to address the body more straightforwardly in my work.

I am drawn to Imi Knoebel’s and Blinky Palermo’s work because of their interest in spatial geometries – the spaces between the panel, surface, paint, wall, floor – as well as the candid nature of their work. Both artists show/showed a strong sensitivity to materials without the drag of modernist dogma. There is blood pulsing through their work even though it is hard-edged and minimal and I hope that is the case with my work, too.

MS: Tell me about the work you had at (e)merge. Visually it’s different that the work we have discussed so far, but the composition is still built from multiple panels.

JR: Yes, this was another piece from the Build series. (e)merge is held in a boutique hotel in Washington DC and I thought the idea of a column would work beautifully with the architecture.  Build: column is a set of bricks made from house paint and canvas. The paint is sandwiched between the canvasses to glue them together. The bricks, each assembled from eleven canvasses, are then stacked from floor to ceiling. Nothing holds the bricks together except gravity and the wedge of the floor and the ceiling. For (e)merge I had proposed that the 13’ column would break through the banquet hall’s drop ceiling and appear to go up infinitely. However, when I went to install the column there were too many pipes above the ceiling tiles to allow the column to securely wedge. We found a new location for the column and it was simply installed floor to ceiling. I used it again in a show in Austin recently, but I would really like to find a location where it can break through the ceiling. Anyway, the process and materials make this piece look different from the other modular works, but they come from the same exploration.  Both call for a flexible system that can be assembled and re-assembled according to the specific geometries of the exhibition space.

Judy Rushin | Carapace : Windows (from Modular series), plexi and wood. Image courtesy of the artist.

Judy Rushin | Bent Line, cast plastic, zip ties, and hardware on wood, 36 x 90 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.


Judy Rushin believes that being an artist is an industrious job and she has the hands to show it. Her work explores relationships between people and spatial environments through painting, sculpture, and installation. Rushin’s work has appeared across the US and in Korea including Aqua Art Miami, Art and Literature Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, Prospect 1-Satellite at Trumpet in New Orleans, Mass MoCA, and Soho20 New York. She is the recipient of numerous grants and her work has been featured twice in New American Paintings. She is Assistant Professor of Art at Florida State University.

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  1. Pingback: Wednesday links | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes |

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