It’s safe to say that Gideon Rubin’s “Brief Encounters” last much longer than the time he spends applying paint to canvas. Whether children playing on a European beach or yearbook snaps from mid-century America, the Israeli, London-based artist’s subjects, though utterly unknown by Rubin himself, take center stage in his reimagining of the past. And extensive that past is. Rubin’s freshly opened exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve in Cologne features nearly 70 new paintings on linen and cardboard: faceless portraits of strangers through which both Rubin and the viewer can connect with pasts personal and collective. ARTINFO Germany caught up with the artist on the morning of the opening to discuss September 11’s degradation of realism, strangers from the early 20 Century, and Geo-tagged DNA.
Roughly you could point to one major shift in your work it would be from starkly realist, figurative painting to a more abstract process.
Yeah, I am definitely still very figurative but definitely the application of paint is becoming more abstract. In the beginning, I am talking maybe 10 or 15 years ago it was quite hard-edged realism and that’s kind of left me. I’m much freer now I guess.
Was there anything in particular that sparked a shift or was it a natural development within your practice?
I was painting kind of realistically and painting from observation. I was studying at the Slate and it was the second year and by chance I was in New York during September 11 and I came back I couldn’t paint like I did before so I started painting old toys, old abandoned toys. Before I was painting paintings that took a really long time: self-portraits in front of a mirror, whatever, these could take months. Then I started painting very quickly all of a sudden. I felt probably had to unload a lot of shit in my head, you know, because of September 11. Three years forward and they are becoming much freer, a little bit more abstract and then I went back to painting portraits. Also the sort of faceless thing comes in. I went back to painting figures or painting my wife and all of a sudden I couldn’t understand it, so maybe the two eyes became one eye and a shadow, and then kind of a shadow and then the shadows gone. It became a focus for me and everything else around it and whatever makes us as human beings rather than just the features, I guess.
I guess it allows the viewer to really enter the painting as well. Is that something that was in the process of scrubbing out the faces, is it anonymizes and allows anybody to enter the situation that you created?
I think it allows the viewer to come in with his own [story]. It’s always about memory, about nostalgia with me; I do want to tick all these boxes: memory or history or nostalgia and all that but I don’t want to take it in a direct way, “Oh that looks like Auntie so and so.” You know? I’m trying to be general and specific at the same time.
Rather than a specific personal relationship through more of an emotional nostalgia or emotional relationship to the work?
Yes I guess so. It’s more to come in with your own story, to come and fill it in I guess. There’s not much in the painting but everything there is, is really considered. I really want, for myself included, to take that in and kind of go from that, so outside to the inside rather than the inside to the outside. If you are looking at a portrait, the first thing we do is look at the features and neglect everything else. I want it the other way around, if that makes sense.
No, that makes a lot of sense.
I paint from old photographs, from the early 20 Century. These are by their nature bleached and faded. They are not color full on, you know high edge, HD details and they become kind of color free paintings and again you know everything is considered in the environment, abstract or not. I want that [environment] to reflect that human being.
It’s a weird fetish that a lot of people have: you go to a flea market and sift through all these pictures of dead people. What seems like is happening in your work is rather than focusing on the fetishization of these old images you are allowing the environments to take over, allowing the focus to fall away from this weird death-drive.
It took me some time, but I think one of the reasons I guess I am so interested these, I was always interested in old stuff, but photographs is, obviously they are anonymous, I don’t know who they are, I get them on eBay or at flea markets, it’s pretty much a fetish, definitely. But in a way, where I come from, Israel, after the Holocaust and the whole Second World War: nothing came out. Maybe each family had, you can maybe count the photos on one hand that survived…whatever auntie or sister of your grandfather or something like that. There is no memory there, there is memory but there’s no photographs or photo albums. I’m trying to reclaim some of it back somehow, you know my family came from Europe and I guess those photos would not have been so different if they took it themselves.
So by looking at these beach scenes, by taking out the people you can create a family history?
I always wonder why I get an album and why I paint photograph A and not B. I think there is a certain calling, a certain mystery that will call me, that I see something — it could be beauty, it could be a connection, it could be emotional, it could be a landscape, it could be something in that photo that ticks me.
Yes, in the middle is a little video, which is an animation of myself, of two hundred and something drawings, and I projected it on the landscape, on a snow painting. So it gives the impression that I am walking on snow and of course you can hear the sound, and it’s just a repetitive thing, I’m just walking and walking and coming back and coming back. Very simple and quite, yeah I think it has some kind of meditative effect to it. He never leaves the painting. It was always kind of a dream to me, to make a painting move.
I think it goes back to your whole idea of reclaiming a family history.
Or maybe finding where I came from exactly. When they came to Europe my grandparents the ones who had survived, the ones that ran away before, they came as Europeans. Sometimes you walk through Tel Aviv and you see boulevards and understand that they were made because these people came from Europe and this is what they saw in European cities and this is what they saw in Israel. I started to paint late in life and discovered more and more things that were in my DNA, which I didn’t know, a lot of European stuff. My father comes from the Americas so I was always closer to New York than to Europe but when I came to Europe it all came back to me and I wanted to investigate that more.
[Images (from top): Gideon Rubin, "Boy on Sledge" (2011); "Pond" (2010); "Faye" (2012); "DSK" (2012); All courtesy the Artist and Galerie Karsten Greve]