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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.

August 28, 1994|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

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.

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