Out from the shadow, away from the elephant

Gideon Rubin is beginning to garner an int'l reputation. But in Israel, he is only now beginning to emerge from his grandfather's shadow.

Gideon Rubin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gideon Rubin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Gideon Rubin has a problem. While most people are whoever they are, who Gideon Rubin is depends very much on where he happens to be.
Almost everywhere in the world, Rubin is a talented and highly imaginative young artist, just shy of his 38th birthday, whose haunting figurative paintings have already begun to garner an international reputation.
In Israel, however, Rubin is something else. He is the grandson of iconic artist Reuven Rubin (1893-1974), one of Israel’s greatest painters and a founder of the Eretz Yisrael style of painting.
And as if that were not enough, he is the son of Carmela Rubin, director and chief curator of the Rubin Museum, which occupies the former Tel Aviv home of the late, great artist.
Here in the land of his birth, Rubin’s identity as a burgeoning young artist in his own right still stands in a very big shadow from which it is only now beginning to emerge.
We agree to meet Rubin at Beit Bialik, the museum commemorating Israel’s most famous poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, which is lodged in the poet’s former home. Rubin has an art exhibition in the building, which he will show and explain.
He comes promptly to meet us, trotting over from the Rubin Museum, a few doors down from Beit Bialik, on Rehov Bialik in Tel Aviv. Both the Rubin Museum and Beit Bialik stand just a stone’s throw away from Tel Aviv’s magnificent Old Town Hall, looming white and majestic at the end of the street, at the focal point of Kikar Bialik.
Gazing at this street and contemplating its colorful history, we are struck by the thought that if the modern State of Israel can be said to have an “aristocracy,” then we are about to shake hands with one of its younger members.
RUBIN COMES as a bit of a surprise. He is short, sparely built, and bursting with nervous energy. He is friendly, smiles easily, laughs often, but comes across as though he simply needs to drop what he is doing and go off somewhere to paint.
This is a man who needs to paint as much as a twopack- a-day cigarette smoker needs to light up after being stuck for hours in a “no smoking” area.
Rubin talks fast, sometimes almost too fast to follow, as though he is afraid the world might end before he has a chance to finish whatever he needs to say. When this is pointed out to him, he laughs, agrees, and continues to talk as fast as an auctioneer.
One of the first things he tells us is why he lives and works in London, and not Israel.
“A lot of it has to do with being the grandson of my grandfather. I didn’t know him. He died when I was, like, a year old. But his art was all around me as I was growing up, years before I started painting. It’s in my retinas, in my DNA, whether I want it or not.
“But I knew the minute I started painting that I would have to do it somewhere else, somewhere outside of Israel. Because here I will always be my grandfather’s grandson. In London, this isn’t a problem.
Here? Now, already I’ve got a career. I’m ready to exhibit here, and I’ve been interviewed, and half of the interview was about my grandfather, and I haven’t been talking about him for 10 years, or something like that.”
So who is Gideon Rubin? The artist presents a brief précis of his life, in short staccato sentences that sound like they were written by novelist James Ellroy.
“I grew up here. Did the army. The usual post-army spiel. You either go to the Far East or to South America. I went to South America. And there I studied painting. From there I went to New York, where my parents were stationed. My father was a diplomat at the time. I wanted to paint. Got into the School of Visual Arts.
Did my degree there, BA. I was there for four years, and then I felt I kind of needed some kind of European art in my blood, and so I went to London and the Slade School of Fine Art.”
WHILE AT Slade, Rubin met and married a fellow student from Hong Kong, also a painter, and a curator, “She’s very talented, more talented than me,” says Rubin. The happily married couple have a “lovely” two-year-old daughter.
Asked what drives him as an artist, Rubin pauses for an unnervingly long moment and replies, “Wow, good question! I’ve heard it before, but never directed at me.”
He laughs a bit, and says, “I’m definitely afraid of failure. I don’t know if that’s a particularly good motivator, but it has worked for me. Basically, if I get to paint every day, I’m a happy man.
“It’s a simple thing, but not a simple thing to ask for. I remember at the end of my studies at the School of Visual Arts, there was, like, a circle of students. A conceptual artist was asking us: ‘What is your dream? What is your goal?’ “When it came to my turn, I said if I can make art that I love, and can live from that, I will be happy. And he looked at me as though it was the worst thing he had ever heard. But I think that’s the idea that still drives me.”
Another obvious thing that drives Rubin is his evident devotion to figurative art.
“I was very much into figurative art from the beginning,” he says. “I was influenced by Lucian Freud. I wanted to learn how to paint and that’s how I learned, from observational painting.”
Asked whether any forms of abstract art speak to him, he replies, “There are abstract painters that I love.
But for me, it has always been about trying to tell a story. Figurative art – every five years or so, some new kid comes along and kicks it again.
“A nice thing about figurative art is that it’s not the hip thing it was around 10 years ago. Because a lot of bad figurative painting was going on. It’s a good thing that it’s not hip.
“But I think it ultimately doesn’t matter what kind of label you put on art, any art. Whether it’s video, painting, installations, sound – anything. The important thing is what you’re saying and how you say it. And if you’re doing it right, it doesn’t matter what you call it.
And that’s a nice freedom now, I think.”
Rubin is also forthright about his influences.
“Since I went to Madrid, it’s been Velazquez and Goya. I actually fell in love with Velazquez in New York, from his painting The Moor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a painter, this is it. And I learned a lot from people like Richard Diebenkorn, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Also Giorgio Morandi. You shift, you change direction, you fall in and out of love, but you find people to learn from and learn with.”
But Rubin is more, a lot more, than merely the sum of these parts, or just the end result of studying the works of other painters. Rubin paints people, that much is true. But the people Rubin paints have one characteristic that sets them apart as unique: Rubin’s people have no faces. They are also set within scenes from other eras – the late 19th century, the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s – that make them appear almost spectral.
AS RUBIN explains on his website, “I have always painted portraits. I was into realism: the nose, eyes, every little fold. But I happened to be in New York on the day of September 11 and on my return I began painting abandoned toys that I had found. These were portraits of sorts – old dolls and toy soldiers – but they were worn out, with only traces of their facial features left.
“Gradually I began painting people again, but my painting was becoming much looser and more simplified.
An eye became just a shadow, then it disappeared altogether. In the last three years, I have been painting anonymous portraits that I find in early-20th-century photograph albums.”
These are usually old anonymous photo albums depicting thousands of mundane scenes and events from hundreds of forgotten, long-ago lives. Rubin crafts his paintings from these old pictures, using muted colors and minimal detail. The resulting paintings range from disturbing, ghostlike images to almost whimsical scenes, frozen in time.
Many of the images are of children. They appear silently and namelessly in pastel-colored memories of sitting on park benches, pushing doll-carriages, riding horses, showing off new school clothes, climbing trees, petting dogs, playing by the seashore, posing with bigger brothers and sisters, even wearing what appear to be World War I vintage gas masks.
All are painted in the images in which they were caught by snapshot photos taken by long-dead relatives or long-lost friends. All are dressed in the styles of history-book decades; and all are without faces.
According to Rubin, a lot of what is seen in these paintings depends to a large extent on the individual viewer.
“It is impossible to directly identify with the characters in my paintings,” he says. “Instead, I want to offer alternative ways of viewing the figures, where the viewer is also involved in completing a narrative or scene.”
Although he has had numerous solo and group exhibitions – principally at the Hosfelt Gallery in New York, the Rokeby Gallery in London and the Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv – Rubin’s current exhibition at Beit Bialik is perhaps his most ambitious undertaking to date.
Called “To Change the Air a Little,” the exhibit, running in a small room on the second floor, is intended to commemorate the great poet’s love of walking.
“I read a long biography on Bialik that was brilliant, by Shlomo Shvah, and I discovered that Bialik liked to walk,” Rubin explains. “The title of the work is To Change the Air a Little, which is a quote from Bialik himself (lehahlif avir ketzat). He used to love walking as a kid, as a teenager, in Odessa, Tel Aviv, it didn’t matter.
“He was a man of many contradictions, I discovered.
And I think that more was hidden than revealed. I think I was drawn to that – walking with oneself.”
The resulting work is an animated film, running in a loop, over and over again, depicting a faceless someone – perhaps Bialik – walking away from a position near the viewer until he gradually disappears.
We see the figure walking, hear the crunching of his footsteps in snow, and almost feel the wind blowing through the cold winter landscape.
“This is the first time I’m using animation. It’s really me walking in Hampstead, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, in a loop of about 29 seconds,” Rubin says. “And it’s all drawn.
“I’ve done about 200 drawings to make that animation.
And I’ve projected it onto a landscape painting of mine. The whole process took me two months. I thought it would take me two or three weeks, but it took two months.
“And the other thing you see in that room is two suitcases in which I’ve hidden all the electronic stuff I didn’t want anyone to see. And these are two old suitcases I found in the flat of my grandmother, who passed away two or three months ago. These old suitcases from 40- odd years ago belonged to my grandfather.”
Asked if this exhibition might be the harbinger of a major change in direction for him, Rubin replies, “It’s just a bit of a change. I’m eager to go back. I have lots of canvases waiting for me, and that’s what I love doing.
“I enjoyed this process, because I did it as a painter. I hope I’ve made a moving painting, a live painting. My initial reaction on seeing the first drawings being animated was like, ‘Wow! It’s moving.
I’m watching my painting move!’ “That initial discovery was great! In general, whatever I do, as long as I can keep it in painter’s eyes, I’m happy with it.”
At present, Rubin can name several galleries, both abroad and here in Israel, that represent him as an artist and regularly exhibit his paintings. He has had a respectable number of solo shows and group exhibitions.
His current work of animation at Beit Bialik is drawing considerable public attention, and he is looking forward to upcoming solo exhibitions in London in May and Tel Aviv next September.
In light of these successes, we are moved to ask Rubin one final question: whether the reputation of his famous grandfather is still the proverbial “elephant in the room” whenever he shows his work here in Israel.
“I think I took care of that elephant when I started to pave my own way,” he replies. “I’m in London. I have my own career. The elephant still exists, but it’s much smaller now. And it doesn’t affect me that often. I suppose it did in the beginning, when I was trying to see who I am. But I’ve kind of forged my own identity now.”
“To Change the Air a Little” runs until February 12 at Beit Bialik, Rehov Bialik 22, Tel Aviv. For more information about Gideon Rubin, his work and exhibitions, visit http://www.gideonrubin.com.