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GIDEON RUBIN: AN INTERVIEW

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The Montréal Review, October 2021

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TMR: Gideon, I know that Leonard Cohen's final work "The Flame" is one of your favorite books. What is the poem in this volume that you liked most?

If I had to choose, I’d pick ’The Mist’ - perhaps it's the way Cohen looks at the past - ‘a mist’, like shadows that creep towards us... the footprints of an old love story, gone forever.

But generally, if I had to pick from any of his poems, I would always go back to ‘Last Year’s Man’. I find so much of myself in it - in fact, I used it as the title for one of my exhibitions in Paris some years ago.

THE MIST

As the mist leaves no scar
On the dark green hill
So my body leaves no scar
On you, nor ever will

When wind and hawk encounter
What remains to keep?
So you and I encounter
Then turn then fall to sleep

As many nights endure
Without a moon or star
So will we endure
When one is gone and far

TMR: Do you see Cohen's verses and songs as paintings? And what do you like in Cohen's art?

I think paintings are like poems. We take words that have a certain meaning but when you put them together - it’s a new meaning altogether. Painting is like that for me: it is that meeting of shapes, tones and colours - that’s where the magic happens.

Cohen is a real master of words - he puts words together in a way that only he can. Anyone else coming up with these sentences and phrases would sound, well, almost silly or daft - but not with Leonard. Miraculously he makes it sound profound, and often religious, even - mystical.

TMR: Tell me, how did you become an artist? What inspires you to create?

It was years ago on a backpacking trip in South America - it all started there really, right after I finished my military service.

I was with a very observant friend, and he was the first to talk to me about it - I guess the fact that we were trippin’ on some local cactus helped… A couple of days later he bought me a little sketchbook and some colour pencils. Funnily enough, it was only when we were waiting to start a trip in a salt desert on the border of Bolivia - after I'd been given some watercolours and brushes - that’s when i felt it for the first time in my life: I had the feeling of doing something right - I had found what I was supposed to do... this was the initial spark and it took me quite a few years of painting to make this a reality.

My work was described once as an attempt to stop time. To slow it down. I liked that very much. Painting for me is always associated with a certain internal struggle. When it's working, I’m in this very specific place - of just painting. I think I’m running after that feeling constantly, a bit like an addict, trying to find that place again and again.

TMR: You love books, but in one interview, you said that you wanted to burn a book ["My Kampf"]. Is that true? And if so, did you burn it?

Initially I did want to burn it. This copy of Mein Kampf was bought - completely unintentionally - by my dear partner, who’s also an artist, Silia Ka Tung. I thought she was buying me some pre-WW2 1930’s German magazines, but when I opened the parcel that morning I discovered, to my horror, that she had bought an English translation of ‘Mein Kampf’, which was published in Britain in the 1930’s. I didn't burn it in the end - instead I covered it in paint, black gouache. Every word and every letter was carefully and methodically erased with a brush and every image was altered. It became the central piece of my 2018 exhibition titled “Black Book’ at the Freud museum in London.

TMR: You have a series of paintings that symbolically depict key moments of twentieth-century Chinese history. From where comes this interest in China?

Silia, my partner in life and in art, is Chinese. Born in China she moved to Hong Kong when she was a young girl. We have three girls of our own at home, who are shared between her Chinese and my Jewish/Israeli culture. These specific works were made during a residency in Shenzhen, China in 2016.

By that time I was already using old magazines in my work and Silia mentioned that I should check out ‘Huabao’ - pictorial Chinese magazines that were published until the beginning of the cultural revolution. I bought dozens of them and they became an endless source of material, which I painted over systematically during the residency.

TMR: There is something mystical behind the blank faces of your models. Do you invite us to fill the empty space alone, with our own imagination and meaning, or rather tell us that the human face is an eternal mystery?

Our response to art - whether a painting, a play or a musical piece - and whether we find it to be successful or effective, depends on how much we can project our own ideas, thoughts and memories onto it, and to what extent are these activated. My work is a lot about that, this distance between the work and the viewer. 

 
 
 

TMR: Are your models real people? It seems to me that they are: they are surrounded by an environment that we know, they do "normal" things, etc... The word "person" comes from the Latin word persona (in Greek prosopon), which means a mask worn by an actor on stage. It seems that you strip the personality (the mask) of your models and leave these faceless people in the bare context of body, colour, and environment. Is that right?

Usually the figures are not a reference to a specific person. Taken from a large collection of anonymous images (I used to collect vintage photo albums, and now I get most of them online) the original photograph is simply a departure point for my portraits. Through a process - the application and erasure of paint - details are lost but a new identity comes to life. This new identity is both general and specific, but it has to come to life on canvas - a real person but not anyone in particular. Often I think of them as actors on a very minimal set, perhaps the light is soft, revealing only certain details - it's suggestive and open to much more...

TMR: Would you agree that Facebook and all other social network websites, instead of making us known, they rather hide us behind a wall of "cacophony" of images, messages, and colors? For me, art is about truth, and the truth is often a blank space that waits to be discovered, a vail that waits to be lifted? Do you think so? What is art for you?

I remember Silia telling me I should open an IG account - otherwise, she said, it's like everyone else having a business card when you don’t. My resistance broke and I opened myself an account. I think perhaps I feared I would get addicted - which of course, with my addictive personality, is exactly what happened...

I think that ‘good' art, whatever that means, always needs time - maybe coming back to it again and then again. What is art for me? It's a way to communicate, but also painting is really who I am. I’m not sure who I am without painting.

TMR: And one final question: tell me about your "normal" day as an artist.

I'm not a very early person but that seems to be changing a bit with the years. I help get the girls ready and take them to school, then usually get to the studio around mid-morning. I try to run twice a week, usually in a park nearby, and I do some Tai Chi on the studio floor.

I'll be in the studio til early evening - often it's productive and sometimes less. A writer I admire once described writing as going in the morning to open your shop. Some days people come in and some days there’s no one but the shop is always open. At times a sudden burst of creative energy comes rushing out just as I’m getting ready to get home in time for dinner with the girls - so I’m often late... But I almost always make it for a bedtime story with the little one… if there's some deadline I will happily go back to the studio after dinner, if not Netflix or some reading. I'm a man of habits and if I can have a painting made during that ‘typical' day in the studio - that's really the best I can hope for.

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Gideon Rubin: The Sun Also Rises
November 4 – December 22, 2021
Reception: Thursday, November 4, 5:30–7:30

RYAN LEE is pleased to announce The Sun Also Rises, the gallery’s first exhibition of work by the London-based painter, Gideon Rubin.

Rubin is known for painting faceless figures and ambiguous landscapes that are familiar yet fugitive. Using vintage and found photographs as the basis for his paintings, Rubin reimagines the context surrounding these memory fragments, drawing the viewer into recognizable scenes that refuse resolution and leave the narrative and its protagonists deliberately nebulous. Through the application and erasure of paint, Rubin says, “details are lost, but a new identity appears.”

Read the full Press Release here.

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