Altered States

Bradley Rubenstein: Saints
Creon Gallery
Through September 30, 2013
Bradley Rubenstein: Drawings (curated by Lucio Pozzi)
Palazzo Vivaldini Carra
Grioli, 46, Mantova Italy
Through September 28, 2013

Children are innocent, we are told, existing in a state of unperturbed self-sufficiency and looking at the outside world with unlimited trust. They share this ideal condition with the objects of their affection, such as cats, dogs, or other pets. When disaster strikes and this peaceful existence is disturbed, some natural law seems to have been violated. As in much of contemporary horror, the shock effect of evil deeds and ghastly events is greatly enhanced if unleashed on the pure and simple in spirit or invading a seemingly picturesque locale and cheerful ordered communal life. The supposedly asexual and immaculate bodies of pre-pubescent children are the primary site of artist Bradley Rubenstein's investigations into the changing conceptions of identity and the state of ethical, social, and sexual attitudes today.

In his drawings and paintings these icons of innocence seem to have been subjected to experiments worthy of Dr. Moreau: a child with a clenched fist as head; amalgamations of two torsos and several exaggerated limbs or with cephalopod tentacles; and, again and again, adolescents engaging in strange unions with giant adult hands. The faceless configurations of human and animal forms are like defenseless victims, threatened by the grasp of the adult world and in constant danger of forever losing their blissful ignorance.

Rubenstein's human and animal composites are strangely lifeless, frozen in time like ancient monuments. Placed into melancholic isolation they have quietly resigned themselves to their fate, arrested in movement and lost in insurmountable loneliness. Either painted with dense layers of carbon, or carefully rendered in graphite and in black or sepia ink, the drawings approach the cold and distant observation of scientific illustrations, faithfully documenting rare anatomical specimens of deviations in nature. The artist deliberately distances himself from the explicit and loaded sexuality of the adult and, in particular, the violated female body, suppressing the projection of voyeuristic desire which, nevertheless is subliminally and disconcertingly manifest.

In his early work, Rubenstein's sexually ambiguous portraits of school-age children revealed a similarly alienating quality. Referring to conventions of formal photography, these tentatively drawn representations morph the faces of pleasantly smiling boys and girls. They are at the same time strangely plausible and ridiculously impossible, like split personalities. Their fascination lies not only in the sexual ambiguity of the subjects they depict, but in their suggestion of the uncanny; the indefinite condition of the real. Rubenstein destabilizes his subjects' identities, and the essential biological body literally disintegrates in front of our eyes, morphing into distorted and fragmented entities. Incorporating a plethora of personae and anatomical prototypes, they engage a long tradition of literary and artistic protagonists from the Golem, Frankenstein's monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to more recent manifestation of cyborgs and aliens.

It is in these hybrid characters that individuality and uniqueness make a final appearance in a world dominated by the bland mix of the generic and universally acceptable. Rubenstein's unfortunate and grotesque anomalies, while artificial constructs, are not however, technologically manufactured cyborgs. Rather they are human and animal organisms challenged by the whims of nature and the malice of biological manipulation. Paradoxically, though, technology is inscribed in the figures through representational techniques that obliquely allude to analog and digital methods of reproduction. In recent drawings, for example, the hand mutates into a four-fingered paint splash that extends like a deformed protuberance from a juvenile body. In such works, the stylistic imitations of photographic and print reproduction call to mind the 1970s, particularly the abstracted, black and white, stark contrasts of the Minimalist drawings of Richard Serra. In the seamless fusion of human being with abstract form, the figure almost disappears into the background, illustrating the entropic dissolution of the self and a morbid fascination with disease and decay.

The approximation of advanced digital manipulation to genetic engineering demonstrates how clear distinctions between human and animal, mortals and machines, are no longer meaningful as they once were. The dualism of nature and culture, mind and body, has broken down, revealing a decentralized, constantly shifting and mutating reality. The scientific system of classification and organization of species seems to fail in the face of Rubenstein's mongrels as a fantastic and wondrous world takes over, where life is stranger than fiction. - Christoph Grunenberg

Mr. Grunenberg is an art historian and Director of the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany.