New York

Nancy Rubins

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

After nearly a century of readymades and bricolage, the cultural resonance of trash is well established. Debris is both abject and talismanic: it represents not only what is thrown away but what remains, and a successful bricoleur like Nancy Rubins can make these qualities function simultaneously. In this show, presenting two sculptural installations of junked airplane parts, Rubins set herself devilish problems in gravity and suspension. But she also commented on the balance between waste and salvage, machismo and vulnerability.

The more impressive of the two sculptures, a lofty, shattered arc, filled the front gallery. Confounding expectation (something so tenuously calibrated ought to hang from the ceiling like a mobile), the whole grew upward from a single engine-case resting on the floor. A group of cone-shaped vessels, their openings facing out, clustered around this central core to form the sculpture’s blunt tail end. From them, twisted steel cables were anchored to eight cleats in the gallery floor—the work’s only tethers. The rest, connected only to itself, cantilevered up and out across the room.

The second sculpture took as its base a small card-table. Grounded and compact, it was an introvert compared to the extrovert next door. But it evinced the same bravura engineering—in one brash passage, a long yellow wing jutted out, dipping toward the floor where it could easily have touched down to provide a modicum of stability. Rubins, however, had fixed it so the tip dipped free, brushing thin air an inch off the ground. A single drawing subtly reiterated this play on solidity and weightlessness. Collaged directly onto the wall, large, rectangular pieces of paper were so densely covered with rubbed graphite that they looked like ultra-delicate sheets of hammered lead.

Like mutant Brancusis, the sculptures seemed to encapsulate the idea of motion. Their fragmented mass commandeered the white cubes, drilling through space, controlling the viewer’s sight lines and angles of approach. But though they were formally exacting, they were not formally pure, because their airplane parts implied a narrative. Possessed of the frightening grace that accompanies disaster, the works inevitably called up fantasies about being in a crash—the deafening roar, the sickening impact. In this sense the hacked and reassembled mechanisms functioned as a vanitas, exciting in the viewer the cathartic thrill of being threatened without actually having to experience danger.

Scrapped parts testify to the failure of a working machine, and unlike John Chamberlain, to whom she is most often compared, Rubins does not turn away from this aspect of her material. Exploiting the fact that the fragility of steel is counterintuitive, and therefore strangely poignant, she does not allow her big works to become simply heroic; they are as much about their hollow, negative spaces as they are about heft and mass. With Rubins, Chamberlain’s Pop edge evolves into an urge toward growth that does not distinguish between the inanimate and the organic. Even her palette—slate gray, scarred white, grass green, orange, chlorine blue—reflects the Mojave desert, where she scavenges for components, more than the factories where they are manufactured.

A cautionary sign, perfectly legible but upside-down on a projecting panel, warned “DO NOT PUSH.” Like the dream of flight, Rubins’ art relies on the deft and constant negotiation of equilibrium in unlikely situations.

Frances Richard