Gideon Rubin show is a haunted house between photography and painting

By Max Blue

Special for examiner

The Gideon Rubin exhibit at the Hosfelt Gallery is a bit like a haunted house. “Red Boys and Green Girls” is the London-based painter’s seventh solo exhibition with the gallery, featuring a recent selection of the painter’s now-standard fare: minimalist oil-on-linen figurative works with faceless figures. There is a disturbing aspect to these empty faces, but it attracts more than it repels.

Rubin’s transition away from realistic painting was inspired by discovering a collection of Victorian photo albums in a bookstore in Hampstead in 2006. Funny, since photographs are generally equated with realism. But it was the gaps in Rubin’s personal history – an absence of photographic records prior to his extended family’s emigration from Poland to Israel in the 1930s – that inspired him. He began to paint from old photographs, and sometimes over them, leaving the faces blank both to pay homage to lost records and to make room for viewers to insert their own stories.

The source material for Rubin’s most recent images comes from many places, but is always photographic. For this show, Rubin draws inspiration from internet images, vintage magazines and film stills. As Gabriel Coxhead points out in his essay “Blurred Visions”, “In Rubin’s paintings, the photograph itself is the subject”, rather than the people these photographs depict. Anyway, what Rubin is really playing with is memory.

The title of the exhibition comes from two series of four paintings, in which Rubin painted the same figure at different sizes, from about 11 by 7 inches to almost 5 feet by 3 and a half feet. In one series, it’s a boy in a red shirt; in the other, it’s a girl in a green dress. The girls and boys are turned resolutely towards the viewer, their presumably faceless faces facing the wall. The two series, hung next to each other, invoke the ability of photography to reproduce and the echo of memory. From a distance, the paintings in each series look alike; up close, their differences are revealed. It is also a mimetic of memory, where each return to a memory leaves it slightly altered.

Works like ‘Swing’, 2021, which shows a woman playing, or ‘Night at the Window’, 2020, a large, poignant image of a man standing on a window ledge, staring down the street below, are simpler reproductions, but Rubin’s recontextualizations refute anyone who tries to take them at face value.

By choosing to paint photographs as he does, Rubin does not necessarily imply that the other medium is deficient: only that it deserves painterly attention. Paint, especially when used sparingly and precisely as Rubin applies it, accentuates the ephemeral nature of photography and introduces something that all that gelatin silver and digital luster lacks: humanity. The photographs are accurate. Human memories are not; they are unreliable and laden with emotional inflection.

Many of Rubin’s paintings are small, intimate works, and the entire show comprises fewer than 30 pieces. At first I wanted more! But the paintings weigh heavily: absence, as Rubin well knows, is a haunting presence. It is in the interstices that his work works — between representation and reproduction, event and recording — reminding us that memory is only the fragile ornamentation of the wall of time.

IF YOU ARE GOING TO:

“Red Boys and Green Girls”

Or: Hosfelt Gallery, 260 Utah St., SF

When: Until February 19, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Contact: (415) 495-5454, www.hosfeltgallery.com

About Catharine C. Bean

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