Behind the Scenes: Bradley Rubenstein


This is the fourth of a series of interviews that focus on Local 829's Scenic Artists’ "behind the scenes" talent who sculpt and paint in a variety of ways the sets we see on television, in movies and documentaries, on theater stages, and in the backgrounds of television and internet commercials.

I first met Bradley Rubenstein very early on in my days in the scenic arts, and it was immediately apparent that he was, and still is, respectfully dedicated to his work as a fine artist. I’ve followed his career closely since then, watching his art delving deeper and deeper into the human condition as he distorts and mutates his subjects. Recently, Rubenstein had one of his warped and mangled human forms in an exhibition titled HEAD that I curated for the Hampden Gallery at UMASS Amherst.

The interview below begins just days before the installation of HEAD. The goal of my interview is the get to the essence of Rubenstein's seemingly endless quest to analyze, interpret and re-present reality.

DDL: Let’s start with the piece you have in the HEAD exhibition. When discussing the headless figure in your drawing, I write in my essay: "Are we looking at the future -- a mutation set up for a specific task, or a mental eunuch poised and prepared for some invisible or imagined foe? Either way, we are left with a haunting form, a freak borne of science not nature reminding us that processes in physiology have their own system of checks and balances, and those rules, when set awry, have little to do with our own preconceptions."

Am I close to your thinking there?

BR: I like the poetry of that description. There is something kind of gothic about it that is very H.G. Wells. I think that it is really the present I was looking at, though, when I was doing those drawings. I had been looking at different ways of painting the figure, which is really what interests me, but I wasn’t interested in approaching it like Freud or Pearlstein, which seemed like a dead end. I liked Kiki Smith’s sculptures, the way that she combined a psychology of the body with a scientific, analytical approach. She was an EMT, and the idea of trauma seemed integral to her work. In some of the work I was doing at that time, like the kids with the puppy-dog eyes, I tried to get at that idea of something real, like eye transplants being done at UCLA with animal eyes, and examine it through art -- portraits of kids with animals. Only in this case the kids and animals were the same portrait. With the drawings, like the one in your show, I was interested in doing figure studies that referenced the symbiotic systems that comprise the human body. At the time I think it was believed that there were five systems -- like the spinal cortex, the gastrointestinal system, etc.—that all operated somewhat independently. So, how do you do a drawing of the figure when the figure isn’t just one entity? It was my Cubist Period, I guess.

DDL: It’s always fascinating how stuff that is relatively concrete or scientific is represented after it's filtered through an artist’s brain. I think that’s why I'm still drawn to the Surrealists. It was the way they interpreted the advancements in everything from biology to physics that keeps the work fresh, in my mind at least. Thinking about the kids with the puppy-dog eyes and the images of children who have their faces divided in half and re-presented as two humans in one: is this as much about a surrealist approach as it is a Cubist leaning? Most might say conceptual, a far more overused and misleadingly term.

BR: I’m not sure there was that much of a distinction between what Picasso was doing with his later Cubism and what Dalí was doing with his Paranoiac-Critical method. It was a particularly interesting time where you have Marie Curie’s x-rays and Sigmund Freud’s analysis -- both ways of trying to see what is going on inside a living human body, and I say living as opposed to, say, da Vinci, who was investigating anatomy 400 years earlier on corpses. Now, both Picasso and Dalí liked to make comparisons between what they were doing and what was happening in science. Picasso liked the Wright Brothers, and Dalí wanted Freud to look at his paintings, but, really, they were just creatively misunderstanding these other disciplines. That, actually, is something I think is at the heart of what I do, and something I like to see in art. Creative misunderstanding. You start with something that might be pretty concrete, and then you interpret it rather than transcribe it. I’m not a genetic engineer. Not a psychiatrist. I just glean from what is going on in the world and make pictures. I think maybe it might be called the surrealism of everyday life. Like, I read a sentence in the newspaper the other day, "Caitlyn Jenner was 20 years old when she won her first Olympic Gold Medal in the Men's 100 meter dash." Now, how great is that, right? People complain the Wi-Fi sucks on airplane flights -- or the movie. These are things that people take for granted now but were the stuff of imagination until very recently. The boy/girl hybrid heads, for instance… most people did not really get them at the time, but that was more than 20 years ago. I think in the best case, reality catches up with art.

DDL: I like that, “reality catches up with art.” And it is true -- an artist's creative process most often advances in many different ways without ever addressing or conforming to any particular formula or type, so the “surrealism of everyday life” makes perfect sense for your approach and thinking. Let’s talk about the more recent paintings on doors. These works feature, for lack of a better term, a “perched” head atop a mesmerizing and gesturing mass or form that often has a palpable iconic presence. It is almost as if they’re a logo or symbol for some sort of ages-old secret society or belief system. Perhaps a “science fiction of everyday life”?

BR: Yeah, that’s a really good read on them. They are portraits of a sort, but in an iconic way, like a Kouros statue or a Giacometti portrait. I was really taken by de Kooning’s Women paintings on doors from the late 60s. The way that he captured these imaginary figures on a beach -- he gave them a palpable sense of reality, of movement, narrative, or whatnot, and grounded them in a space -- a door -- which is real. My friend Brenda Goodman uses doors, and I was talking to her about why she does. The reasons were very similar. Also, there is a nod to Renaissance panel paintings, with them being on wood instead of canvas. There is a lot going on in them, but I am trying to create a painting that has few moving parts -- something streamlined so that the viewer apprehends everything all at once and can then take it apart and see the movement…the story.

Cormac McCarthy said that he is only interested in writing that deals with death. That really strikes me as a concise way of describing how I feel about painting. It should tackle serious material; it should be iconic, address the eternal. The paintings are portraits of people who are interesting to me. When I don’t have a subject, then I do self-portraits. I did a recent show with Mira Schor, a painter who has been my friend for 20 years and whose work has also been of great influence to me. We called the show Imaginary Anatomies. I think that is a good description of what I paint.

I start with the portrait, the idea of a figure painting, and try to get at the psychology of the figure. I begin with the head, with an objective element, like a sketch or a photograph, then build the narrative through the gesture of the figure. The blacks of the pigments tell the story. The paints are hand ground -- carbon, for instance, for the head; we are carbon-based life forms. Different elements for different elements in the painting. For instance bone black for the spinal elements -- those are the flat planes. They are based on needling points in acupuncture -- meridians, or chakras. In the painting Night (2013), the figure is part goat. I was looking at Picasso's later works, the ones where he really tackled aging, and saw the dark humor there. The goat. The bull. The minotaur. The rest of the figure in that painting is like a map; it is the needling points of the male urogenital system -- dangerous needling points that are seldom used. They are stretched out like Buckminster Fuller's geodesic maps, or a Mercator projection, to create the planes. The geometry gives the figure a sense of stasis, of arrested movement, of stillness. Then, growing out of the sides of the figure are three anamorphic skulls. They mark the spots of greatest danger, the places to not put the needles. The figure is either holding them or they are stuck into it like a picador spears into a bull. There’s your narrative, a meditation on mortality.

In the portraits I try to find an equivalent, something about the person. I like the marine elements, for example, of squids and octopuses. The squids obviously have the ink as well as the carbon. The figure of my niece on the beach is a good example. How do you capture something like that? Playing on a beach, this tiny figure engulfed by the giant ocean? Again, de Kooning got it in Clamdigger (1976). I think I got something of that -- the iconic, a moment captured.

And there is something of that in making a film, which I’m drawn to. People see a movie, and they are immersed into a story; there is atmosphere. This also happens with television, but that is more of a writer’s universe. When you make a film, in some ways, whether intentional or not, you are making a documentary, recording fact. You have all of these different elements, the actor, the camera operator, the make-up and hair department, the scenic painter, the set decorator, the prop person. They all assemble at a very specific time and place. For a few minutes, or sometimes hours, their work all hinges on the actor reading specific words. All of this is captured on film -- all of this plus the incidental elements, such as the movement in the background. Things that just happen and are left in the film. Then all of these moments are cut together to tell a story. The story is the fiction, but the film is the fact. All of these people were here for a moment and did things, and it is all here, on film -- what Bacon called the brutality of fact. I like that as a description of both painting and filmmaking.

DDL: I love the way you have built great depth into your work using very basic materials thoughtfully, while maintaining grit and purpose.

One last question: I’ve often been asked, “what has happened to all the great painters? Why are there no more Rembrandts? Why has there never been another Da Vinci? Of course, there are great painters in our day, too many to mention, but the question, posed by a more general audience with less exposure to contemporary art than you and I, and who continue to look for the “great representational painter,” still begs an answer. So, after explaining how the world has changed its focus; how the visual arts, once the great chronicler of its time, has lost its mass appeal; how the changes in what can be called the wealthy and/or powerful and influential commission base to the modern-day emergence of the artist’ initiated, inward and outward looking unique viewpoint; how the advent of the camera, television, personal computers, movies, and so on changed everything; I finally end up stating that perhaps it is our finest, imagination-capturing, and mind-expanding filmmakers who are now the great chroniclers of our time. How would you answer that question, assuming it was put to you by a general audience?

BR: I think it’s contextual. It's like saying, “Where are all the Edisons or Teslas?” There used to be so many inventors and geniuses, and all we have is Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. It's a self-determining system. We can only remember so many consecutive digits easily, like phone numbers. There were a lot of great painters in France in the 19th century, but if you go to the Met there are, what, like 50 represented in the galleries? I think history determines what was “great,” and in the meantime a lot of people are doing interesting work. There is a lot of stuff that gets ignored for other reasons, too. How many black artists or women, for example, don’t get noticed despite the fact that they have 40-year careers? It’s partially the fault of the audience for not looking and partially the fault of the business of art for not showing what is out there, instead focusing on art as a commodity. You also make a really valid point about the other disciplines, like film or photography, taking up some of that attention…but then that has always been the case. Da Vinci made like 20 paintings we know about but did great theatrical productions for the Medicis. He was kind of like the Stanley Kubrick of his time.

I think the reason why painting continues to interest us so much is because it’s so primal. There are 4,000-year-old cave paintings. It is one of our earliest forms of recording information. The fact that we are still doing it at all at this point amazes me.

Bradley Rubenstein is a painter and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His works are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Tang Teaching Museum, and The Krannert Art Museum Teaching Collection at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and The Museum of the Moving Image, New York, among others. He has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Painting, the Pollock-Krasner Award, and a grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. Rubenstein has written extensively on art and art education. Rubenstein has been a contributing editor for ArtKrush magazine, New Observations, and Art Journal; he has contributed interviews, essays, and reviews to CultureCatch, ArtSlant, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artforum. He has collaborated with many artists, including Sue De Beer, Lucio Pozzi, Bjarne Melgaard, Claude Wampler and Sarah Michelson, producing books, films, installations, and theatrical decors. Rubenstein has also been a production artist and set painter for films, television, theater, and video. He has been the lead scenic artist for productions by Jonathan Demme, Tom McCarthy, Jean-Marc Vallée, Spike Lee, and Alfonso Cuarón. His film credits include Rosewater, Demolition, The Bourne Legacy, and Indignation; his work in television includes the shows Girls, The Sopranos and Blindspot. - D. Dominick Lombardi

Rubenstein's theatrical work can be seen in Behind the Screen, currently at The Museum of the Moving Image, NY.

Photo credit at top: Anne Marie Fox, 2014 (Bradley Rubenstein, Camera Scenic, Day 28, Demolition)


Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, a writer with The Huffington Post, ARTslant, and d'ART, and an independent curator.