While on release from military service, Gideon Rubin backpacked across South America with friends

Written by Joe Andre Alam

PLAYBOY ASIA - Gideon Rubin began creating his nostalgic, dreamlike art late in life. “It never occurred to me that I could do it—or want to do it,” he explains, despite being son to a curator and grandson to a painter. “In Israel [his hometown], there was no inclination that I could ever become an artist,” says the now London-based artist. “I started painting late. Art was in my DNA, but I rejected it.”

And then everything changed when he was 22. While on release from military service, Rubin backpacked across South America with friends. It was there, surrounded by lush landscapes and new people, that he discovered his passion for painting—but not before ingesting a psychoactive that gave him the key he needed to unlock his artistic potential. “I took a sort-of peyote in Ecuador,” says Rubin, “which showed me that there’s more than the eye can see, that somehow you have to trust your senses. Like the experience you have as a child, when you can focus on something so minute as an ant walking or your hair in a stream of water, I found the experience poetic and reminiscent of childhood memories.”

A couple weeks later, in Salar de Uyuni, a salt desert in southwest Bolivia, he picked up the brush in earnest for the first time. “We were traveling with a girl who had some watercolors and brushes. When I put my hand on the brush, in some godforsaken place with a beautiful landscape, that’s when it felt right. It felt like something I was supposed to do. Traveling and backpacking opened a door,” he says, “but I’m sure the peyote helped.” Although he found painting in South America, Rubin struggled for years to find his voice. “I had to find out who I was first. I knew my grandfather [Reuven Rubin], and I knew his work, but that was not me,” he says of his early life. “I needed to find my voice. That happened in New York.”

Rubin found his signature style at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) and later at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. “That was my initial four or five years, just training myself academically.” While he was in New York, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 struck the Twin Towers. The world and Rubin changed forever. “At SVA, I was painting from life: myself, my friends, models. After 9/11, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. I could not make self-portraits anymore,” he says. “I was finished.”

Unable to continue the path he was on, Rubin found inspiration in discarded toys and damaged dolls. “These dolls and toys, being antiques, were missing parts: a headlight, an eye, an arm. I began to use them to make still life works. Instead of making a self-portrait in three months, I made three paintings a day. I had to clear my head and my heart,” says Rubin. “I was painting frantically.” These discarded objects were, in many ways, indicative of the nation’s condition after the towers fell.

“I painted these objects for a couple years, and then slowly shifted to painting photographs around 2005. But between 2002 and 2005, the faces slowly vanished. It slowly left me,” he says. Rubin’s faceless portraits are, ironically, instantly recognizable and an outgrowth of his fixation with the intimacy of the past, memory and loss. There is a vulnerability in each of his pieces that is no easy feat. Still, a more daunting endeavor lied ahead. Rubin debuted his Black Book at the Freud Museum in London, but he was initially sickened by the notion of painting over 18 volumes of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He could barely be in the presence of the vile text, let alone touch it.

“When I visited the Freud Museum two years ago, I began to think about how magazines looked when Freud fled Vienna in ‘38, just before the war. Eventually, I got a bunch of German magazines. For me, being Jewish from Israel, it was a heavy subject,” he says. “I started painting on them, erasing text or imagery. There was a dark undertone to the work that appealed to me.”

Before long, the project became increasingly challenging. “I asked my wife to get me more German magazines and, to my horror, she got me the first serialized English translation of Mein Kampf, published in 18 parts. She didn’t intend on buying that,” he says. Rubin’s gut reaction was to trash the Nazi propaganda, but he “couldn’t because it was almost too dirty for the bin.” His friend suggested he make artwork from it, but Rubin resisted.

“I thought that was the worst idea, but somehow I took one of the volumes and painted the cover black. I was repulsed by it and drawn to it.” He trusted his disgust until he had transformed all 18 volumes. He admits it was “horrific,” but Rubin’s redaction of Hitler’s words renders the hate powerless. By erasing the dictator’s heinous rhetoric, Rubin is not denying the past but reclaiming it. “It’s not Mein Kampf anymore. It’s my Black Book.”

Even after completing the project, Rubin worried about how Holocaust survivors would react. “I was apprehensive about what actual survivors would think of the exhibit. If they found it abusive or hurtful in anyway, there was nothing I could do to make it better,” he says. An attendee at the Black Book exhibition quickly assuaged his fears. “This lovely artist, a good friend, brought her dad who is a Holocaust survivor, and he was in tears,” he says. “He was touched by it and especially moved by how I integrated the work, this heavy source material within the very personal space of Sigmund Freud, blending the personal memory with the collective one. They asked what I felt was different in this project from work I've done before, and I said, ‘It’s as if I was practicing for 15 years until I got to the Black Book.’”

With his artistic eye focused on the past, Rubin is still troubled by the future. “In my early 30s, I went to Auschwitz, and at the end of the visit, after a flood of tears, the guide said, ‘We have to remember, as I speak to you now, horrific things are being done.’” Rubin pauses, reflects, and mournfully says, “The world is not learning.”

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