Love Letter to Nancy Rubins

This teetering, conglomerous mass seems to stand on one leg, reaching toward the sky. Airplane parts—some conical, others wing-like—jut and stretch and bend and crowd to each other. At the top, something like hollow eyes gaze forward.
Nancy Rubins, installation view of Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thomson’s Airplane Parts, about 1,000 lbs. of Stainless Steel Wire & Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space at MOCA, 2002. Photo by Brian Guido. Courtesy of the artist.

I first heard about muons—the recently discovered subatomic particle, upending our known laws of physics—from the artist Nancy Rubins. Through her artwork, she concerns herself with no less than trying to understand the universe. When words fail to express her fascination with how we came to be here, her explosive, monumental sculptures do the talking.

Reclaiming heaps of junked material from airplane parts, canoes, trailers, playground equipment, lawn sculptures, and more, Rubins challenges herself to place these seemingly unwieldy objects into harmony. The final works achieve a precarious-yet-inevitable balance of weight, volume, and rhythm. It’s painting with giant heaps of metal, an almost whimsical mark-making in three dimensions instead of two—a truly formal exercise. 

At the same time, these stunning feats of suspension are not meant to evoke a mystery. Rubins shows her work with a clearly visible webbed girding of tensile cables. It’s not magic, she insists, it’s physics. Maybe so, but I suspect she relishes suspending your disbelief. In that tension, she gets at the diminishing edges of what’s knowable and what we take on faith.

It is tempting to read Rubins’s re-formations of industrial detritus in the United States as a consumerist critique, but that would very much miss the point. She is genuinely moved by what she often calls the “exquisite” beauty of her materials—an airplane wing’s prim line of bolts against gleaming metal, the hollowed curving interior of a cast iron alligator. Most wouldn’t choose that word to describe them. That’s the beauty of Rubin’s extraordinary eye and sensibility: with her sculptures, she makes them so.

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Author: Sara Softness

Sara Softness is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on an exhibition of the work of Boris Lurie, debuting in October 2021 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.