Meet the Artist

Gideon Rubin on the Tragic Origin of His Faceless Portraits

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Gideon Rubin on the Tragic Origin of His Faceless Portraits
Gideon Rubin

Gideon Rubin's paintings are marked by disturbing absences. A brief glance at his work will have its viewer thinking that his paintings are just portraits in the traditional manner, owing perhaps a distant debt to Manet's dynamic brushwork. A second glance reveals what the paintings are missing: none of their subjects have facial features.

As a result, Rubin's work hovers between unsettling and genuinely moving, because even though the paintings have an initially jarring effect, they allow their viewers to fill in the voids with their own memories, reflecting a collective past onto an old genre. We talked with Rubin about the photographs he uses as references, finding inspiration in the Old Masters, and why 9/11 changed his work forever.

You’ve said that you began your paintings of faceless children when you experienced the events of 9/11 firsthand in New York. Can you talk about how that tragic even inspired your art? 

Watching the events unfold from a friend's rooftop on 10th Street and Broadway was probably the most surreal and terrible thing I've ever experienced. After seeing that tragedy unfold before my eyes, I knew I couldn't paint what I was painting before that visit to New York. Prior to that trip, I was painting from life, from observation, and this included painting self-portraits that took months to finish. I remember coming back to London a few days later and feeling that if I didn't get back to painting right away, I would lose my mind. I had to communicate in a more direct style. This meant working in more simple style and finishing a work more quickly, so I began painting old, abandoned toys and dolls. Faceless portraits came a couple of years later.

You often base your paintings on photographs of children from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. What draws you to these eras specifically?
 
After resisting it for years, I began painting from photographs, and that got me interested in late 19th- and early 20th-century photography. I was into the style, the clothes, the way the hair looked. I also loved the anonymity of the subjects. On the one hand, these people had nothing to do with me—unlike my earlier paintings, which were of myself, my family, and my friends; on the other hand, it was as if each of these people was holding a key to a story, a history that I was trying to tap into. This thread of history—of style, people, fashion, et cetera—and storytelling is, in many ways, what I'm still trying to paint today. Now I work with a more recent photographic history, painting from photographs from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
 
For your paintings on cardboard, you apply your own style to remake famous historical works, like Goya’s Clothed Maja or a portrait by Ingres. What are you exploring in these paintings, and why do you feel the need to update these canonical works in your hand?

A large part of my interest in history and time, especially as a painter, is in the work of the Old Masters. A trip to the Prado while I was studying at SVA pretty much changed the way I look at paintings. Copying an Old Master painting was never my interest, but painting them on a small piece of cardboard was different. Making these detailed, precious portraits on the most mundane material was so appealing to me. It's also their size, so small they felt like making stamps of the Goya, Velásquez, and Rembrandt, that I like so much. This was part of the larger series of cardboards where I was looking at various printed material, from old art history books to Vogue and Hello magazines. A Goya portrait and a photograph of Kate Moss in a bikini may be polar opposites, but they've certainly both found their way into my work, all thanks to my experience at the Prado.

Who are some of the artists who have inspired you the most?
 
Velásquez, Goya, Rembrandt, Manet, Morandi, Ingres, Soutine, Bacon, Alice Neel, Picasso, Balthus, Richter, Katz, Dumas, Borremans. I can go on and on.

Your paintings are done in a muted color palette, usually in earthy tones with red accents. How did you arrive at this aesthetic?
 
For me, the colors I use are always based on intuition. I was always a tonal painter, more interested in tones and shades than color. That was especially true after I moved to London. Obviously, the source material—black-and-white photographs on old, yellowing paper—reflects in the work itself.

Your paintings often have a lively, spontaneous aspect, as though they were done quickly. How long does it take to produce a typical canvas?
 
Most of the work, regardless of the size, is done very quickly. The rest takes much longer. It can take days and weeks before I find that one brushstroke that makes the painting work. It's great when that happens.

Aside from a few landscapes, your work is almost entirely portraits. Why is portraiture your favored genre?
 
I was always interested in people. Now I just don't paint their facial features.

What made you want to become an artist? 
 
I started painting after military service, when I was travelling with a friend in South America at the age of 22. Until then, I hadn't found anything I wanted to do or that I was particularly good at, so when I discovered painting, I remember thinking, "I'm not letting this go." It took some years before I could call myself an artist.

Is there anything you collect yourself?
 
I have some nice antique toys that I used to collect, but I'm not actively collecting them at the moment. That said, my wife and I have a small art collection that is growing slowly.

What are you working on now?
 
I'm working on some new paintings, landscapes and loosely dressed women mostly, but I'm also working on my second animation. It's a film of myself, sitting and drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette. I'm doing it in the old, hand-drawn style, which means I've got a lot more frames to go. I've also been invited to be an artist-in-residence in Tel Aviv, sponsored by Outset Israel. I've never made any work in Tel Aviv before, so I'm really looking forward to it.

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