San Francisco

Jon Rubin

Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery

Titled after Edward Hicks’s iconic folk-art painting of 1848–49, Jon Rubin’s recent exhibition “the peaceable kingdom” brought the theme of tranquil coexistence to the queasy process of growing up suburban. His mixed-media drawings, wall murals, and video installation recall the days of cloaking discomfort in bold ’70s Vera fabrics, and how the patterns and personalities locked together under one roof can often forge a quirky kind of truce.

The artist infuses his theme with a sense of an encroaching trashy future, of good kids gone wild; and it all starts with Lower Merion High School, 1981, 2002. Cheerful faces from a yearbook are traced in red pencil and layered into a delicately tangled mass; the result is a semitransparent cloud of ascended souls hovering against a white picture plane. Though once they belonged together, these graduation-photo smiles have now disappeared into an abstracted fray.

With each layer of decorative skin, there’s a sense of pathology mixed, rather handsomely, with play. In the series “the peaceable kingdom,” 2003, groups of people of various ages gather for peculiar diversions. In one, a gaggle of children in robot costumes are isolated at the drawing’s lower left, stranded in a vast area of white. Here, Rubin’s swirling multicolored pencil lines add a sense of internal complexity to the figures while evoking an idea of tangled viscera. A loose narrative links the set of drawings, and it looks like these costumed kids grow up to go to parties where people moon each other, drink beer, get naked, or slip into pervy furrie/plushie costumes. In another group of works from 2002 and 2003, different neighborhood families are evoked through dense, unruly reconfigurations of their florid interiors, as lifted from the pages of a lifestyle magazine from, say, 1975. The Tysons, for example, is composed of meticulous red tracings of creeping ivy and stonework against drapes and sofa upholstery busy with geometric patterns. The resulting whole resembles a map of an island (and, indeed, aren’t families discrete entities floating in a neighborhood’s tranquil sea?). In other works, Rubin combines bold patterns in bright watercolor and acrylic with the pencil drawings’ delicate lines: There’s a bonanza of form and color in The Lazaroffs, 2003, a tiny explosion of drapes, flowers, chinoiserie, etched mirrors, and shiny metal chandeliers. Does the oppressive dazzle mask the psychic turmoil or reflect it? Rubin seems to relish the ambiguity. Finally, in the video installation Among the Living, 2003, he veers toward a goofy joy. On a plasma screen set between low-slung, Home Depot–derived redbrick posts topped with acorn ornaments and facing a funereal reflecting pool, a yellow wildflower blows in the wind, an Anthrax song serving as an unlikely sound track. The song adds a bit of headbanging to flower power, as the blossom, just slightly accelerated, rocks out to the elements. It’s typical of Rubin to offer a breath of fresh air—or is it air freshener?—to accompany these whiffs of death-rock morbidity; like his drawings, this work makes you chuckle and shudder simultaneously.

Glen Helfand