Abandoned, Reclaimed, Transformed: The Art of Nancy Rubins

Artist Nancy Rubins' sculpture "World's Apart"

I first came across the work of Nancy Rubins in the 1980s. My initial response was one of amazement – a 45 foot tall tornado-like form that literally contained everything, including the kitchen sink. Located next to a highway in Washington, D.C. the sculpture was so excessive, the antithesis of the staid political D.C. scene. Titled Worlds Apart the name was particularly apt.

Nancy Rubins, sculptures old made from mattresses and frosted cake

Rubins has made a career of transforming large found objects – mattresses (see above), water heaters, airplane parts, boats – into monumental, gravity-defying sculptures. Writing in Art in America Michael Duncan describes the work this way, “Anthony Blunt’s assessment of the intentions of 17th-century Baroque artists might also be applied to Rubins: ‘Artists aimed at arousing astonishment, at creating strongly emotional effects, at imposing them instantaneously, even abruptly, on their audience.’ Rubins’s sculptures achieve their immediate impact through a self-consciously vulgar excess, a daring splendor, that seems similarly Baroque in spirit. With her explosive embellishments, she aims to reinvigorate a stultified genre: monumental modernist sculpture.

Artist Nancy Rubins, sculpture made from old hot water heaters

Artist Nancy Rubins, sculpture made from old airplane parts

There is a fine balance in Rubin’s work between the associative and the formal. On one hand the viewer recognizes the objects and remembers how they are used in the world, along with the cultural and personal memories they embody. At the same time, the new configurations allow the objects to be transformed and seen as formal elements in a unique composition.

Artist Nancy Rubins, sculpture made from boats

Artist Nancy Rubins, sculptures made from boats

Evaluating the work formally, the elements and principles of design are seen in Rubins’s use of scale and proportion, her emphasis on the textural and material presence of the individual components, and the real balance and tension that is the structural support for the sculptures.

One of the things that impresses me about Rubins’ work is the way she mixes humor and fear. The pieces are so absurd, the materials so inappropriate that you want to laugh and yet, there is something scary about these huge forms suspended overhead. Will they collapse? Is that mound of rusted airplane parts ready to explode? I feel like I’m watching a display of athletic prowess, and I’m just praying that the performer doesn’t trip.

Artist Nancy Rubins, sculpture made from old playground toys

The piece shown above, Our Friend Fluid Metal, is composed of thousands of old animal shaped playground objects. The name comes from the fact that the metal used to make the animals was liquid, melted down aluminum from old airplanes, reformed for a new use – just as the animals have now been reformed for a new use. Rachel Small spoke with Rubins for Interview Magazine and I thought this quote did a great job of explaining Rubins’ process and thinking:

SMALL: Did you think about how these parts have been discarded again and again?

RUBINS: What I love about them is that they’ve had so much use. The initial use of what it was before it was these objects, and then thousands of children who jumped on these things and wore them down, and they’ve been painted and re-painted again. They had their own life way before I ever got them.

SMALL: It sounds like that life was very rooted in the actual transference of material. The experience of other people in relation to this material and that sort of history… different people had different experiences around it.

RUBINS: Yeah, that’s interesting to me. It’s interesting because you get these objects and you note that they’re loaded with this history, and it’s time for me to blow a new history into it.

SMALL: What would you like that history to be now?

RUBINS: Well, it is what it is. They’re sculptures.

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