She’s Big on the Art of Recycling : There’s no such thing as junk to Nancy Rubins, whose enormously ambitious sculptures defy gravity as they turn the world on end.
Nancy Rubins is such a petite woman, the art she makes seems as though it couldn’t possibly come from her. Using the larger chunks of trash from modern life--scrapped airplane parts, discarded trailers, mattresses, hot water heaters--she creates hulking bouquets of metal junk on a scale so grand they simultaneously read as frightening, impossible and absolutely wonderful. The “gee whiz” factor in her art is very high.
Visiting the 41-year-old artist at her studio in Topanga Canyon where she lives with her husband, artist Chris Burden, one gets some idea of how this insanely ambitious work comes to exist.
Her modestly sized studio is in a state of barely organized chaos. Her drawings--large sheets of paper obsessively covered with graphite until they take on the sheen and weight of metal--are casually tacked to the walls and cover the floor, and many are irreparably torn and smudged. To get from one point to another, Rubins simply kicks them out of the way. She drags furniture over them. She hardly seems to notice they’re there. It’s a messy room, but there’s something grand about the sheer volume of material it contains, and there’s an exhilarating freedom in the rambunctious way she lives with the raw material of her art.
Rubins herself is a whirlwind of activity who always seems to be doing three things at once. Listening to her tell the story of her life and art in animated bursts, one deduces three facts: She has a wildly unfettered imagination and a child’s sense of play; she had extensive schooling that gave her a solid grounding in the art of the 20th Century, and she has an indomitable, can-do approach to life. These things have led her to ask herself such questions as: “Why can’t I make a sculpture out of 100 old mattresses smeared with 300 stale cakes?”
Included in MOCA’s 1992 exhibition “Helter Skelter,” a controversial exploration of the dark side of art in Los Angeles, Rubins contributed one of the show’s most critically acclaimed works, and this is the Rubins piece Angelenos are most likely to have seen. A gigantic tumble of trailers and hot water heaters that loomed over the show like a menacing industrial cloud, the piece was a knockout and made clear why her work is so popular in Europe.
Southern California will get another look at her work when she unveils an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego on Sept. 23. By necessity, her site-specific pieces rarely live longer than the duration of the average gallery show and don’t come to Los Angeles too often, so a drive south definitely seems in order.
Rubins is remarkably precise in charting the development of her work--many artists balk at such a task, but she seems to remember everything. Born in Naples, Tex., the youngest in a family of three children, Rubins and her family relocated periodically throughout her childhood, following her father’s career as a research engineer.
“We lived in Cincinnati for a few years, then we moved to Tennessee, and I mostly grew up in a tiny town there called Tullahoma. My mother took us to museums and I loved drawing, but I wasn’t one of those kids who could draw a face--I guess I couldn’t calm down enough to do a neat drawing,” she says with a laugh.
“I had an extreme sensibility from the time I was young, and always played intensely and had a little too much energy. I made candles, for instance, and the candles always got out of hand. You know how kids melt their crayons and make candles--I’d keep melting until what I was making turned into something that had nothing to do with a candle.”
Graduating from high school at the age of 16, Rubins enrolled at Peabody College in Nashville planning to become a high school art teacher, but all it took was one day of classes for her to realize she was in the wrong place.
“They were training people to be exactly the kind of teacher I always hated, so I left that program and became an art major and started making paintings--these strange, organic, Eva Hesse-looking things. Scale has always been an issue in my work and even those early paintings were big--they were more like objects that hung over ropes,” says Rubins who, surprisingly enough, has never taken a sculpture class. “I spent a lot of time in the ceramics lab too, and at the time was influenced by funk, a kind of low Pop, and Minimalism.”
After two years at Peabody, Rubins transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she says she began making “crude, unfired ceramic pieces. At the time I was interested in work by Peter Voulkos, and a few years later the work of Robert Arneson became important for me.
“I was only 18 when I went to Baltimore and was lucky in that I stumbled into a good school,” she adds. “Lots of people came down from New York and lectured, and I took the train up there a lot, so I got a taste of what New York was about. I realized I wanted to be an artist when I was in Baltimore, but I still felt very young and was nervous about going out into the big world, so I decided to go to graduate school. I wanted to see what the West Coast was about, so I enrolled at UC Davis, where I studied with Arneson.”
For obvious reasons, some observers mention sculptor John Chamberlain, as well as the California Assemblage tradition, in discussing influences on Rubins’ work. However, she says that “while it was important to know Chamberlain was there, he wasn’t a direct influence--I was more interested in the Minimal people like Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, and also liked Robert Smithson, Claes Oldenburg and Gordon Matta-Clark. As for assemblage, I love George Herms’ and Bruce Conner’s work, but my work strikes out in a different direction.”
Graduating from Davis in 1976, Rubins moved to San Francisco, rented a loft, worked as a waitress by day and taught painting at night at the San Francisco Art Institute. The roots of her mature style began to appear in the work she made at this point.
“I’ve always gone to Goodwills,” she recalls, “and one day I was in a thrift store and saw a pile of television sets selling for 25 cents each. I was fascinated by the idea that I too could own a mountain of TVs, so I loaded up my station wagon with them--I bought 286--planning to use them in a sculpture, which didn’t work.
“I was thinking about Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village at the time, and I painted all the TVs with fluorescent paint, stacked them up and held them in place by packing them in concrete. But somehow the TVs never transcended their TV-ness, so I thought enough with the TVs--I don’t know what I’m doing here.
“Not long after that, in 1977, there was an earthquake in San Francisco and the building I lived in rippled like a wave,” adds Rubins, charting the evolution of her approach to scale and materials. “I was amazed that something so heavy and hard had the capacity to be fluid, and that led me to make a series of concrete walls that moved. They were a quarter of an inch thick and 12 feet high, and if you pushed them they rippled.”
Later that same year, Rubins went to Richmond, Va., to teach for a year at Virginia Commonwealth University, and while she was there her work took another decisive turn when she became hip to the beauty of used appliances.
“Initially I noticed the appliances in thrift stores because they’re small enough that you can manipulate them, but then I became struck by how infinitely varied they were. Hair dryers, shavers, toasters and hot dog cookers come in a million shapes and colors, and I loved the fact that each one had belonged to somebody who had an intimate connection with it--the presence of the user was definitely in the object for me, and I had no interest in unused appliances.
“Anyhow, I started going to thrift stores and filling my car with them, and every day I’d mix buckets of concrete, pack it around rows of appliances, then let it all set up--I was building walls out of them,” she adds. “All those pieces were destroyed, and I loved their impermanence--if I had to worry about storing my work I’d never be able to give myself the freedom to make it. A little pile of appliances just didn’t do it, and those pieces had to be huge in order to work--there’s a hilarious absurdity to them because of their size.”
Completing two appliance pieces in Richmond in 1978, Rubins went to New York and landed a show at the O. K. Harris Gallery, scheduled for two years later. In the meantime, she went to teach in Tallahassee at Florida State University, where she collected 3,000 pounds of appliances, which she shipped to New York. Returning in 1980 to New York, where she was to live for a few years, Rubins had her show at O. K. Harris. The show was well received, but for obvious reasons, she didn’t sell anything and made her living teaching and running a house-painting company.
From 1980-82, Rubins completed a handful of monumental works in New York, a few done through the arts program Creative Time. She then did a controversial permanent commission for a shopping center in Chicago that led Al Nodal, then the director of the Washington, D.C.-based alternative space WPA, to commission a piece for a plot of land near the Watergate building. Titled “Worlds Apart"--a gargantuan, 40-foot-high orb of appliances perched on a thick stem--the piece took three months to build and proved to be less than popular.
“The town went crazy when I built that piece,” says Rubins, who was 28 at the time. “Ostensibly they objected to it on the grounds that it was a waste of taxpayers’ money, but it was built almost for free with donated materials. The truth was they just thought it was ugly. We’d hoped to leave it up after the three-month permit expired, but the minute the permit was up they made us take it down.
“While I was in Washington, (Los Angeles artist) Charlie Ray called and invited me to teach at UCLA,” she continues. “I’d never had much interest in L.A. but needed a break from New York so I came in the fall of ’82 and lived downtown at 6th and San Pedro. I didn’t have a car so I had to catch a bus at 5:45 in the morning to get to UCLA in time to teach--I felt really alien here,” she says, laughing.
“That changed a bit when I met Chris (Burden) at the end of 1982, and after returning to New York I found myself thinking, ‘Gee, that’s a pretty nice guy back there.’
“At that point I was rethinking my work,” she adds. “I felt I’d gone as far as I could with the appliances and I started noticing bigger things, like trailers. In 1983, I made a piece in San Francisco using trailers that I cut up into parts, but that was unsatisfying--when you cut them up they lost their trailerness. That same year I made friends with this junk dealer in San Pedro named J. W. who told me where I could get trailers in bulk, and five years later I made a piece in Pittsburgh (Pa., for the Three Rivers Arts Festival) leaving the trailers intact--that seemed like the beginning of something.”
R ubins maintained a long- distance romance with Burden until 1984, when she returned to L.A. permanently and moved in with him on a piece of land in Topanga Canyon where they lived outdoors for four years. “At first we camped,” she recalls, “then we built a really elaborate tent.” Burden and Rubins were both teaching at UCLA at the time, and Rubins spent much of her free time trying to find someone who’d sell her used airplane parts.
“In 1984 I became friends with a man in the Mojave Desert named Mr. (Bill) Huffman who helped me find airplane parts, but it took forever to find somebody willing to sell them,” she recalls. “The stuff usually belonged to the government and there were contracts forbidding its sale, but when I finally did find a seller who had some declassified parts he could legally sell, the stuff was amazingly cheap--it sold for whatever the cost of scrap aluminum was at the moment.
“Working with the airplane parts, I realized there’s a human element in everything we create,” she adds. “Plane seats, for instance, are structured like the human back. We talk about electricity in terms of male and female, hot water heaters are approximately the size of people and liquids go in and out--everything is a metaphor for humanity.”
Rubins completed her first piece using airplane parts in 1985, using wire to affix the chunks of metal to a tree on the land where she and Burden live (the piece is still there). She used those materials again the same year for an installation at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown L.A. titled “Four Thousand Pounds of Smashed and Filleted Airplanes,” and the following year she and Burden collaborated on a mechanized airplane parts installation at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. “That was the only mechanized piece I’ve ever done--the mechanization was Chris’ contribution to the piece.”
Asked if she’s ever considered working with organic materials, she says, “No, because the organic element is already in my work--it’s there in the way the piece dictates itself as it grows, like moss or a fungus. The impermanence of the work is also organic.”
In fact, Rubins is working with an organic material; she’s been making sculpture out of cakes and old mattresses for the last two years.
“This work took root in 1987 when I visited Baltimore and noticed all the old mattresses in the alleys there,” she says. “Then I discovered this device used in packing that straps things really tight, and realized I could use it to sculpt with mattresses. I made my first piece using the device in Baltimore, but it didn’t work because I needed more mattresses--I had 150 of them, but somehow it needed more density.
“During the time I was thinking about the mattresses, I went to do a show in Vienna and found myself surrounded by amazing pastries,” she continues. “European pastries are an idealized, highly fetishized food, and they represent a kind of culinary high point in civilization. That part of the world has such a dark and complex history that there’s a dark undercurrent to all the sweet food you find there--it’s as if the pastry helps maintain the dream that everything’s nice and under control.
“Mattresses are related to this but different in that instead of being about dreams, they absorb dreams, along with other base parts of human life--our sweat and so forth. Mattresses are like baroque clouds that are a metaphor for what we desire, and sweets are about human desire as well. It seemed as if they went together.
“I built the first piece using mattresses and cakes at UCLA in the spring of 1993, then shipped it to New York where it was shown at the Paul Kasmin Gallery. When you unbind the mattresses the cake cracks, so you have to apply fresh cakes when you reach your destination. I come from a ceramics background so in a way I handle the cakes as if they were clay.”
Hearing Rubins talk about the mattress pieces leaves one eager to actually see one, but she has something else in mind for the show in San Diego.
“I want to take a break from the cakes and mattresses right now,” she says. “The San Diego museum has a beautiful new building with a triangular room and I’m going to remove the high windows above the room, and use the room and the street for the piece--that’s about all I can say about it at this point, because my work takes shape as I make it.”
Asked if she has a dream project she’s never been able to pull off she looks surprised. “No,” she says, as if such a possibility never crossed her mind. “I’ve never not been able to do anything I wanted to do with my work."*
* Nancy Rubins’ work will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art/ Downtown, 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, Sept. 23, 1994-Feb. 9, 1995. For information, call (619) 234-1001.