What liberates is knowledge of who we were, what we became;
where we were, whereinto we have been thrown;
whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed;
what birth is, and what rebirth. . . .

–Valentinus, c. 100 A. D.


This famous formula, or poem, of Valentinus, found its answers in the tenets of the Gnostic religion, answers that described a mythology of creation, fall, and redemption somewhat different from that of the mainstream Christianity. That specific answers were expected to Balentinus's questions is indeed suggested by their linguistic form ("whereto we speed").

The recent paintings of Michael Reid Rubenstein suggest a similarly wide-ranging process of questioning, and Rubenstein's juxtapositions of simple, iconic shapes – a bridge, an owl, a nude woman - against abstract fields suggests a search for origins, for meanings, for answers. But those abstract fields are underlain by chaos, and the iconic forms, themselves isolated and contextless and devoid of particularizing features, are themselves undermined by the uncertain way they are drawn. The drama here is not one of finding answers unlikely, almost impossible. If Valentinus's questions embody the structure of their answers in their very form, the questions that Rubenstein's paintings so evidently, if haltingly pose - What does it mean to say that a thing exists? Can an object be said to possess a stable identity, independent of its surroundings? - are posed in such a manner as to suggest that no answer is expected, or even possible. Instead the viewer is trapped in a kind of ecstatic cycle of repetition, bouncing between questions and possible answers and back to the questions again.

Among Rubenstein's new work is his "Crossover" series, all five of which are in this exhibition. The first "Crossover" painting was modelled on Monet's "Japanese Bridge" series. All are triptiychs, containing similar arced lines stretched across three adjacent canvases. Only in Crossover #1 is the bridge rendered with some degree of realism - drawn as a solid object; it has some degree of texture on its surfaces. At the edges, this bridge seems to fade into shadow, as if it physically extends into the dark but is simply hidden from view. In the later three "Crossovers," #3, #5, and #6, the bridge is rendered merely as a few parallel lines, which end abruptly before reaching the edge of the canvas, rather than appearing to fade out.

Crossover #3 sets the three arcing yellow ochre lines of a bridge against a turquoise background. "That was sort of a vision of heaven; about this inclusion of a heavenly image. But the surface is very much beat up; we're not talking about Disney fantasies here." And indeed, the light blue, near-aqua surface is almost continually interrupted. It looks as if small pieces have been chipped away, revealing a darker color below; in other places it looks as if the light blue has been partly abraded away. Also, instead of fading out gradually, the lines of the bridge simply end well before the edges. "You'll notice that the bridge never connects to either side," Rubenstein says of the "Crossovers." "Inherent in the 'Crossovers' is the whole idea of time in our lives: that there's no beginning and no end; we don't know where we came from; the mystery of birth and death and not knowing where we go when we leave here."

Presenting just a few curved lines in space to represent a bridge connected to nothing solid, to "neither side, has other consequences as well. Stripped of the particularizing details that would accompany a representation of an actual bridge, and denied any connection to a specific landscape, Rubenstein's lines take on a universalized, symbolic aspect. These are not specific bridges; they instead become the idea of a bridge, and even more, the idea of a passage from one place to another. The last three bridges in particular are about the idea of passage.

Further, these uncertian lines suspended tenuously in space, with no real anchor, have another effect. They are obviously human-made forms, their arcs well-known to classical geometry and from building arches as well as bridges. The gouged and abraded surfaces that the arced lines sit on, on the other hand, have some of the qualities of natural decay: of paint as it flakes off a wall in time, for example. The bridge lines, then, represent a kind of human last stand against a tide of randomness that threatens to sweep over everything, an almost desperate attempt to hold on to some idea of form in the face of a world of chaos. Floating in space without anchor themselves, the arced lines give the viewer a visual resting point, a place to imagine oneself standing as one looks over a surface full of unpredictable accretions and scars.

What transforms these paintings from clear questions about existence that might embody the idea of an answer (questions such as, "Is it possible to find order within the chaos of the world," to which one might imagine possible affirmative or negative replies) into propositions that offer paradoxes rather than solutions is the fact that the arc-lines are painted so as to undercut themselves. First of all, these are hardly arcs of Euclidean precision. In fact, Rubenstein, following an argument long made by art historians, posits that most Old Masters drew from some kind of Camera Obscura-like projected image, though they concealed that fact; he once read that this accounts for their certainty of line. For Rubenstein, "It's a challenge to draw a line. It's natural, when drawing something for the first time, to search and hesitate as you're drawing; you start to go in one direction; you realize, 'No, that's wrong,' so you change direction a little bit; you start to unintentionally shake as you go. Doing the 'Crossover' paintings, I was having trouble drawing an arc because my arm was in hesitation a lot. But it became very important to me when doing the bridges and animals to do them through my own eyes. The camera is one step removed from the soul."

But even more important than the halting, less-than-ideal quality of Rubenstein's lines is the ambiguous way they are rendeed. At first glance they seem to sit atop his field of chaos, but on closer inspection the lines in Crossover #3, #5, and #6 are hardly solid or stable. The yellow lines in Crossover #3 are at times bright and self-assured; at other times the paint is blurred and smeared; at still other times the paint is almost completely absent, leaving only the chaotic blue field, with the eye left to complete the arc. The black arcs in Crossover #5 are at times almost solid, occasionally absent, and often appear incompletely applied –– or partially wiped away. Whereas the initial contrast for the viewer of all the "Crossovers" is between arcs and background, this uncertianty even as to the process by which the arcs were made in the last three unexpectedly unites them with these painting's even more diverse "background" fields of colors and shapes. Both arcs and background are equally undermined with doubt, and thus the relationship betwen them can no longer be presented as an answerable question. Instead doubt itself becomes a fundamental quality of existence, and the paintings present themselves as unparsable entities, as statements about the nature of things.

When Rubenstein views the lines in his "Crossovers," sometimes they resemble the lines on a musical score, or the ropes of a boxer's ring. "Then it's not a bridge at all anymore, and I'm a boxer and am seeing this crowd through blurry punched eyes, through a punched head." More generally, the inversion of direction would reinforce the sense that these paintings are not about specific objects or even shapes, but about the idea of some universal icon one might hang onto in a dissolving world -- hang onto at least until one realizes that the icon itself is part of the dissolution.

The background field of Crossover #5 is relatively dark, but it is crammed with diverse colors as well. The colors don't really match each other, or when they do, the shapes don't match: two thin red lines appear near very different fuzzy red shapes. Up close, the surface seems to demonstrate a notable lack of harmony. Colors and shapes struggle violently with each other, both side-by-side (horizontally) but also vertically, as colors on top that are partly scraped away contest with underpainting. The whole triptych seems to be a battleground, threatening to explode in a war of colors and shapes and areas of surface -- a scraped-off area of paint is very different from an area of paint incompletely applied, for example. Rubenstein describes it as "a football scrimmage of paint. I'm fighting and pushing, taking build-up where the paint was still wet from a few days ago that I was scraping off and applying them somewhere else." The viewer enters the painting in medias res, as if there were no way of unpacking how this big, sprawling, almost monstrous war began. Appearing in some ways to pose fundamental questions, it eludes answering them by undermining the difference between line and field. There's a feeling of unbridled passions that threaten to obliterate logic and consume the visible universe yet while rage is here, all is not rage; step back and the work seems almost gentle, a bit like a muted time-exposure of a long-running fireworks display in an inky sky.

While there are only five "Crossover" paintings, originally there were twelve, numbered one through twelve; Crossover #13 has only been recently completed. "I thought, 'This is a sustaining image, and I'm going to run with it,' so over the course of last summer I punched out twelve. The later ones were all done in the fashion of the last two, Crossover #5 and #6, in many different colors. I was sitting looking at them and thinking, 'This is wrong.' I felt that I was imitating myself. I wanted the work to communicate some idea, but it would fail if it became decorative. So I took what I felt were the best four and preserved them." Rubenstein painted over the rest, and the results can be seen in some other works in this exhibit.

"Once again I was threatended with some health concerns, and I spoke with a Hopi. I've always loved Native American mythology and culture, and he was telling me about death and was explaining to me that one of the symbols of death in Southwest Indian culture is the owl. When an Indian says that the owl is calling your name, that means you're going to die." Night Owl gives us an owl, its back to us, on the left side of this triptych whose colors are all shades of indigo blue, raw umber, and black. Outlined in a heavy black line, the owl is a solid, undifferentiated brown; above the owl are the faint arcs of a painted-over bridge. Around this predatory bird, almost as if it's surrounded by a clearing, is another solid color, while the rest of the triptych is filled with diagonal lines that seem lashed together as if making a dense thicket. While not as fully chaotic as the backgrounds in the last three "Crossovers," these diverse lines seem to clash with each other, demand each other's space, and choke each other off. An intense if circumscribed struggle is occurring here -- a struggle perhaps not unrelated to that in an actual forest, in which plants are constantly vying with each other in the quest for nutrients and light.

One's first impression is of an owl facing a clearing in a dense, dark forest. the absence of particularizing detail on the owl has an effect similar to that of the bridge of three lines: it becomes generalized, the idea of an owl. But the contrast between the undifferentiatied owl shape with its heavy outline and the surround is stark, and one's first thoughts are to the relationship between animals and plants, between predator and prey, and of the kind of existence an owl might have and the kind of meaning he might have for us. Even more than the bridges, with their dissolving lines, the owl becomes an open symbol, one through which each viewer might pose his or her own questions.

But the owl is also divided. Unlike in his bridge triptychs, Rubenstein didn't have to divide his owl. He could have placed it in the center of the center canvas, or used two slightly wider canvases to get a work of the same overall width with room enough for the whole owl in one of its halfs. Instead he places his owl so the break between canvases splits him; a similar placement is used for the snake in Snake on Fire and the nude woman in Desert Flower. The effect is to give the owl a symbolic power and meaning independent of Rubenstein's representation of it. dividing it, and having the figure survive and thrive on the division, universalizes it.

Blue Girl began as an attempt to paint a violent storm at night. Against a background of blues and blacks, Rubenstein gives us two curvy thick white lines, originally streaks of lightning. They now suggest the outlines of a nude woman, from her raised arms to the top of her hips, but the space between the lines, in which one imagines her body, is the same violent clash of colors and shapes, of paint removed and overpainting added, of bursts of light and color, that occupies the rest of the canvases. And with various brush effects visible, the white lines are too thick to be read merely as lines. They are also as uncertian as ever, varying in texture and density and sometimes vanishing. And the woman is divided between the two left panels, just like the owl.

What is extaordinary is the variety of things Blue Girl is just on the edge of becoming. Avoiding a single recognizable style that would be easy to repeat, Rubenstein also avoids the commodification of painting that results from having a known "look" to one's work, or commodification via the presentation of a clear and detailed rendition of a desirable object, such as a naked woman. The result is that each new picture redefines the terms of the fundamental questions it poses. Blue Girl has a way of destroying the questions even as it poses them. By likening a woman to lightning at night, with its aura of primal terror; by dividing her down the middle; by giving us a night sky that appears mostly blue-black from a distance but is in fact riven with clashing colors and shapes while also united into a surface that is lush and even beautiful, Rubenstein avoids letting his work be pinned down. This is not a "nude," not a nature painting, and also not fully abstract. It doesn't allow itself to be verbally pigeonholed, thus making it more likely that the viewer will interrogate it, over time, for meaning, a process that ultimately requires the viewer to interrogate himself. What is the relationship between the human figure and nature's organic order? What is the nature of the chaotic emotions that erotic images summon up? The viewer is encouraged to think about such questions, without being offered -- or even asked to provide -- answers.

Like all the triptychs in which a figure or animal occupies two panels, this has a third panel that's empty. A sign of the fundamental emptiness felt by all who reject the certitudes of older faiths, it is also a lush explosion of shapes and colors, a kind of inventory of splendors unmodified by reduction to recognizable objects. It reminds us of the richness of a perception unfocused on the particular; it stand for those masses of neurons firing and thought clusters that keep our minds so busy when we think we're alone. Just as physicists have learned that the "empty" space of a vacuum is far from empty, being filled with subatomic particles that rapidly appear and vanish in an ongoing process of creation and destruction, so the attempt to depict the space of an expansively-focused psyche results not in emptiness but in a crowded surface full of havens of quietude and continual eruptions.

Fred Camper
May, 2000