Washington, D.C

Harris Rubin

Osuna Gallery

Unlike his earlier work, Harris Rubin’s new welded steel sculptures feature representational elements and imply narrative structure. They symbolize a world dangerously out of control, gripped by conflicting ideologies and militarism. End of the Line, 1987, has an armature similar to that of a classroom globe (perhaps a plea to learn from history?) which supports a gas-powered kitchen stove and a locomotive. The locomotive, pulling a nuclear cooling tower on a flat-bed car into the stove’s oven, alludes to past and future horrors: the ovens of Nazi Germany and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

These sculptures represent a radical departure from Rubin’s previous work, which was abstract and influenced by the sculpture of Anthony Caro. However, though Rubin here abandons abstract pictorial concerns, he still employs late-Modernist pictorial space and scale-defining elements (life-size metal tuna, actual chain-link fencing) in combination with real space. Through these devices, he gives his sculptures the unsettling feel of conflated time, trapping what seem moments of great consequence within child-like dreamscapes.

While End of the Line is somewhat literal in its meanings, the larger pieces War Games, 1987, and Pacific, 1987, are much more complex. War Games employs a pyramidal framework, in which a dart board (painted to imitate the real thing), darts (shaped like miniature fighter jets), and a model of a modern city are suspended. Placed on a circular “board” of the same size, this city is aligned in the pictorial space of what seem to be radar coordinates, suggesting the ultimate purpose of military games. In Pacific, a squadron of miniature World War II fighter planes swoops down on a model warship held in a ring by metal cross hairs that pictorially re-create the view from a cockpit or the periscope of an attacking submarine. In the space below, a tuna swims among the wreckage of propeller and radio tower.

These sculptures are not unitary forms, but constructions made of discrete zones of real and pictorial space connected by implied narrative. Narrative functions to shift attention from one zone to the other, but, since neither zone is privileged, the viewer shifts continually between the two. This strategy, especially successful in Pacific, is used to disrupt perception of the work. When it becomes apparent to the viewer that the large radio tower on the gallery floor replicates the one on the warship, then tower and propeller become the warship’s sunken wreckage. The tuna not only locate this wreckage on the sea bottom, but also the viewer, both victims of an impending attack. Psychological identification of the viewer as victim immediately changes when attention goes from this real space with life-size objects to the pictorial space around the small warship in the cross-hairs. The ship, which is rendered as small because it is apparently being seen through the lens of an aiming device, psychologically forces the viewer outside the sculpture to become the attacker “sighting” a distant foe at sea. This psychological shifting of identities is compounded by a conflation of past, present, and future: the aircraft are World War II, the warship is a present-day vessel, and the radio tower is future wreckage.

Defeating any attempt by the viewer to construct a centered and unified self in relation to it, Pacific’s visionary nightmare of a world on the brink of destruction becomes all the more psychologically disturbing because of the sense of dislocation the piece engenders. Here, the decentered self not only speaks of the psychological instability of the modern world, but intimates that everyone, over time, is complicit as both victim and perpetrator of its destruction.

Howard Risatti