He who dares paint

The 82-year-old South African-born artist is pulling no punches in the To Expose the Demons – Unshown Works exhibition.

Harold Rubin, Untitled (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harold Rubin, Untitled
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Artists should, by definition, be a courageous lot, seeking – to paraphrase the stirring words of the intrepid Capt. Kirk of Star Trek – to go where no artist has gone before. It is safe to say that Harold Rubin pertains to the more daring side of his professional fraternity.
The 82-year-old South African-born painter, jazz clarinetist and former architect is certainly pulling no punches in his new To Expose the Demons – Unshown Works exhibition that opened at the Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv on June 19. His paintings feed off a powerful political and social narrative, portraying Rubin’s ethos on matters of a sexual nature too.
Rubin is no stranger to pushing his boat out. He has a long history of thumbing his nose at the powers that be, and once it almost landed him in a heap of trouble. The octogenarian was a strong opponent of the draconian apartheid regime in the country of his birth, and used his art to vent some of his frustration at the government’s treatment of non-whites in South Africa.
One of his first persona political credo vehicles was his 1961 Sharpeville series of drawings that was his riposte to the killing of 69 blacks by the police in the titular township several months earlier. His most controversial work was displayed a couple of years later in the shape of a painting called My Jesus, a provocative rendering of the crucifixion in which Jesus Christ appeared as a nude black figure with the head of a monster. It was his entry to a closed competition on religious art. The authorities got wind of the work, immediately had it removed and summarily charged Rubin with blasphemy. Rubin became only the second South African to stand trial on the charge. Luckily, his attorney got him acquitted but advised Rubin to get out of South Africa as quickly as possible. The artist appreciated the gravity of the situation and soon immigrated to Israel.
He had taken some risks with his music, often playing with leading local black jazz musicians, such as saxophonist Kippy Moeketsi and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa at the Odin Cinema in the black township of Sophiatown.
“We’d ask some kid to keep a look out for the police and, if they saw some trouble coming, they’d let us know and I’d hide under the stage,” recalls Rubin.
With a background like that one could expect To Expose the Demons – Unshown Works to convey Rubin’s ideas in no uncertain terms, and it does that with aplomb. Rubin’s abstractly figurative paintings harmoniously embrace an oxymoronic marriage between visceral sentiments along with an underlying romanticism.
As the title suggests, the items in the show cover a wide temporal domain, with the earliest paintings from 1977 and the most recent created this year.
There was, it seems, no ulterior motive for Rubin’s seeming reluctance to offer the public a look at works that have been lying around gathering dust for over three-and-a-half decades.
“I’ve got quite a lot of works, and I didn’t show them before because it just happened that way. I could fill up a lot more space with my work,” says Rubin.
Despite be well past pension age, Rubin is showing no signs of slowing down.
“I paint almost every day,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and take a piece of canvas and start painting. Sometimes I work on two things at the same time. If I wanted to start working on something new, I might finish one work before I start on something else, or I may want to develop a painting over time.”
The same cannot be said for Rubin’s musical endeavor.
“The clarinet is a different story. I take time to work on the clarinet, on new ideas and so forth. So I might just sit down and play for a couple of hours.” Rubin agreed that musical creativity can in some way inform his visual output. “I suppose it does, but I am not sure I know exactly how,” he muses.
“I am sure there must be some kind of connection between the two,” he says, slowly warming to theme. “I sometimes start [a painting] by making a few signs on the cloth, which may be nothing to do with what the work will end up as. Maybe it’s a bit like improvisation, so that would be a connection with the music.”
In fact, for Rubin, every painting is another leap into the unknown.
“I don’t have that much of a precise idea about what I’m doing. I start working and it kind of develops as it goes along. I can have an idea, but sometimes that changes as I progress.”
As with the Sharpville series, sometimes his creative process is fueled by the political arena.
“I had a series called Will We Survive the Eighties? which I did as the 1982 [First Lebanon] War was about to start. I could see what was happening and I really wondered whether we would get through the ’80s.”
The current show features works created across a wide time frame of 37 years. That is a long time, even for someone of such a venerable age as Rubin and, presumably, he approaches his work, and life in general, differentially now. While accepted wisdom is that we mature and become more experienced as we age, he seems to be following a reverse continuum.
“I am less sure of what I’m doing today,” he declares. “I develop my work as I go along. I come with an idea or a feeling about something, and I let that start the work. And while the process of the work goes on, I develop something completely different. So, in a way, you could say my attitude is less defined.”
Rubin displayed the courage of his convictions back in South Africa and here in the 1980s. His propensity to be daring appears to be burning as brightly as it did over half-a-century ago.
Asked whether he is ever wary of the repercussions his work may generate, he replies simply, “I do what I do, I don’t think about what might happen later.”
“I don’t know if I trust myself,” Rubin answers as to whether that comes with age – the ability to trust himself and damn the consequences, “but I am willing to take the chance.”
To Expose the Demons – Unshown Works closes on July 12.
For more information: (03) 524-6685 and www.artisthouse.co.il.