bradley rubenstein

The following text by Christoph Grunenberg appeared in a catalog accompanying the October 1999 exhibit, Permanant, at the Clifford•Smith Gallery.

Mr. Grunenberg was the Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston from 1995 to 1999. He is currently Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tate Gallery in London.

Minor Mutations

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 and 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 Bradley Rubensteinıs investigations into the changing conceptions of identity and the state of ethical, social and sexual attitudes today.

In his drawings, the icons of innocence seem to have been subjected to experiments worthy a Dr. Moreau: a child with a clenched fist as head; amalgamations of two torsos and several exaggerated limbs; a walking rabbit with human body; 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 losing forever their blissful ignorance.

Rubensteinıs human and animal composites are strangely lifeless, frozen in time like ancient monuments. Placed into melancholic isolation, they have quietly resigned to their fate, arrested in movement and lost in insurmountable loneliness. 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 or the deviations of nature. The artist deliberately distances himself from the explicit and loaded sexuality of the adult and, in particular, violated female body, suppressing the projection of voyeuristic desire which, nevertheless, is subliminally and disconcertingly manifest.

In a similar manner, Rubenstein exploits the conventions of formal photography as an alienating device in his sexually ambiguous high school portraits that morph the faces of pleasantly smiling boys and girls. These tentative representations in pencil are at the same time strangely plausible and ridiculously impossible, the split personalities emanating an eerie quality that subverts the appearance of normality on the surface. The fascination of this freak show derives from the subjectsı sexually ambiguous nature but also from their indefinite condition between life and death and the natural and artificial that is an essential element of the uncanny.

The stable identity of the subject is questioned as the essential biological body literally disintegrates in front of our eyes and metamorphoses into distorted and fragmented entities incorporating a plethora of multiple personae and anatomical prototypes. Following a long tradition of literary and artistic protagonists that stretches from the Golem, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to more recent manifestations of cyborgs and aliens, the ambiguous moral but also indefinite biological nature of human beings is revealed.

Paradoxically, 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. Rubensteinıs unfortunate and grotesque anomalies are artificial constructs, however, not technologically manufactured cyborgs but rather human and animal organisms challenged by the whims of nature or biological manipulation. Technology, however, sneaks in through the back door and is inscribed in the figures through the representational technique that obliquely alludes to photography and other methods of mechanical and digital reproduction. In his recent drawings of 1998, the hand has mutated into a four-fingered paint splash that extends like a deformed protuberance from the juvenile bodies. In these works, the oblique imitation of the stylistic idiosyncrasies of photographic and print reproduction calls into mind the fascination of the 1970s with the abstracted, graphic rendition of photographs in stark black and white contrasts so popular in the wake of Op Art. 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, death and decay at the end of the millennium.

The approximation of advanced digital manipulation to genetic engineering demonstrates how the clear distinction between human and animal, mortals and machines has long become obsolete. 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 this gallery of mongrels as an alternative fantastic and wondrous world takes over. And yet, sometimes life is stranger than fiction. The absurdities and extremes of the imagination start to pale in comparison with the rapidly developing achievements of science that have blessed us with a mouse with human ear, a cloned sheep, genetically altered vegetables and, maybe soon, complete human beings made to order.

©Christoph Grunenberg, Boston, July, 1999