Like many who live near Harlem and Cermak, my introduction to the art of Nancy Rubins was not a happy one. “Big Bil-Bored” (1980), its vertical conglomerate of small kitchen appliances, caused enough controversy to lead to its demolition in 1993. I hated it. He rose from the vast emptiness of a mall resembling commercial signs in size and shape, demanded attention, then punished the eyes with a limp sheet of rusting, festering junk. As a warning slap in the face of the conventional American consumer (presumably female) – OK, maybe it was a good joke. But as an integral part of our landscape, it was ugly!
So I expected Rubins to have more confrontational eyesores in their two parallel exhibitions on Bluhm Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Rhona Hoffman Gallery. But apparently it has softened over the past forty years. Their materials are still from junkyards, but now they resemble flower arrangements – and good ones too. They are balanced (or dramatically unbalanced) and rotate upward with life inside, just like a flowering plant. And instead of the toasters and egg brooms from “Big Bil-Bored”, all four of their new conglomerates have assembled the aluminum body parts of animal sculptures for amusement parks. With a few museum-quality exceptions, the creatures in the carnival carousel feel small, stiff and awkward. But their hollow parts often have strong curves and volumes, while surfaces show the wonderful patina of age. Throw in a heavy steel coil spring or two under the seats and you have a visual vocabulary that can make large, happy, vibrant sculptures.
What has become of the confrontational social criticism of our blatant, patriarchal consumer society? With a little imagination, you can still feel it. What attitude towards biodiversity do the mutilated bodies of toy animals represent? When deconstructing a children’s playground, don’t we also deal with the traditional female role of childcare? Isn’t the recycling of old materials environmentally sensitive? And does the web of black wires that hold all parts together suggests not the web of a spider, an archetype of the somewhat threatening femininity? Or, if you prefer, these toy animals can only evoke nostalgia for lost childhood, still connected in the neural network of memory. That’s the good thing about attractive art that is not overtly political. It loosens the mind instead of tensing it.
As a bonus, the Rhona Hoffman Gallery also contains five “drawings” whose creepy quotes prepare you for graphite-on-paper work like no other. The pieces look like sheets of black metal that have been bent and cut into interesting shapes. You remember Ellsworth Kelly’s “Chicago Panels” at the Art Institute, but they’re much more interesting. They seem to be looking for references rather than trying to avoid them.
Nancy Rubins began her career as a ceramist and has now returned to some of the traditional values of this medium. While modeling the shape in her drawings, she uses the simplest of colors and materials to suggest the most complex emotions. When she composes forms in her sculptures, she looks for a dynamic of inner life. She is far from “Big Bil-Boed”. (Chris Müller)
“Nancy Rubins: Sculpture and Drawing” is on view through December 18 at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 West Chicago.