Contributed by Heather Bause Rubinstein / I left New York in January of 2020 and sublet my studio with plans to return in April. I repeat this pattern of coming and going every spring term to teach in Houston alongside my spouse, art critic and poet Raphael Rubinstein. As before, I transformed the single-car garage below our Houston apartment into my studio and treated the four months in Houston as a respite from the noise, hustle and chaos of New York. In the first two months before leaving Houston due to covid, I think I must have churned out fifty or more “recto-verso” paintings—working on four or five paintings at once.
Then the pandemic came and Raphael and I left Houston for rural Then the pandemic came and Raphael and I left Houston for rural Pennsylvania. The lockdowns began. Everything changed and — I’m certain I’m not alone in having felt this way—I felt I couldn’t make the same kinds of paintings as before.
Now that I was in isolation because I am high-risk, I was seriously stressed about my son back in Houston— I had no idea when I would be able to see him again. I also missed the culture and energy of New York, the positivity of being around other artists or people in general. In New York, I feel like I can do anything, that anything is possible. I feel like I can erase my past, or at least dim it enough, forget it enough, to become someone new, someone better.
New York encourages my innate rebellious mentality and empowers me to walk around thinking, “fuck it, fuck everyone, fuck the powers that be. . . . I will be a bad-ass painter like those 50s guys at the Cedar Bar, a bad-ass painter like Joan Mitchell, like Rosalyn Drexler, like Betty Tompkins.”
Somehow that confidence is lost when one is in quarantine and the world is paused. Not just for artists, it’s that way for everyone. Living in the middle of the country, my aggressiveness faded, that tank-like mentality one needs to plow through New York melted away. My competitiveness dissipated, at least for the moment. My place in the history of art seemed to matter less than watching the cardinals, blue jays and finches taking turns at a bird feeder. Painting and its issues seemed superfluous and I just kept thinking, “it’s all so trivial during a fucking global pandemic.”
I also felt enormous anxiety, not knowing when I was going to see my son or my stepdaughters again, horrified at the murder of George Floyd, distressed by Trump’s insanity. Everything changed so quickly. I would wake up thinking it was like some bad post-apocalyptic movie.
At the same time I knew I was so lucky to be someplace relatively safe.
Despite this anxiety, or maybe because of it—and because I can’t stop making things—I found myself making different kinds of things.
In my studio I had several small hardcover sketchbooks. You know the kind, with those crinkly black faux-leather covers. I started filling them with collage-paintings. I’m on my third book now. I make them automatically, unplanned, using images and texts torn out of home design magazines and books published in the 1950 and ‘60s with titles like The Peoples of the United States, America and Me, and YOU and the Americas. I bought these volumes last year at a local library during one of their “bag of books for a dollar” sales.
My process is to collage every page in the entire book and then go back into them with acrylic paint. There are maybe 80 pages in each book. Sometimes the original collage disappears completely underneath the paint, but usually I leave a few hints visible, a face, an interior, the detail of a building, a fragment of text. I have always loved collage, and of course I love painting. Before starting these books I had been looking a lot at Vuillard and Bonnard, and Mitchell. I think my large paintings, both the Recto-Versos and the Stitched works, show those influences, but some of those influences also migrated into the collage-paintings.
After I completed the first book, I realized that the collage-work was about what was happening around the country.
I was so pissed off by what I was hearing while washing the dishes in the morning on NPR, or by what I heard at night making these collages when Raphael had MSNBC on and I could hear reporting from Joy Reid, or Ari Melber, or the BBC.
I was so angry, so mad at the injustice (!), so heartbroken, so frustrated. I felt so helpless about what was happening in the country—about BLM and the pandemic. I listened to Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings, obsessively watching Rachel Maddow at night. The only way for me to deal with all of this was to put it into these books.
That’s why for me these are not joyful things. They are about being scared for the future and being angry at the administration; they are made out of sheer terror for my children and my husband and myself.
The imagery is from the past but the work is about the present— about how little has changed in sixty or seventy years. Reading the captions and texts in those old books and magazines— really pissed me off— I was really ready to burn down the house by their implicit racism and xenophobia. I wanted to salvage these pieces from our fucked past and transform them into something positive.
I am very aware of the contradiction between some of this historic material and the kind of painterly overlays I make. That’s why the Bertolt Brecht poem quoted at the beginning of the In Dark Times video (made by Raphael) is so relevant.
It goes (in Michael Hamburger’s translation):
In dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
Brecht wrote this in 1938, in exile in Denmark after fleeing Nazi Germany. When I worry that art-making is a frivolous activity, especially when so many are suffering, this poem gives me some much-needed reassurance.
For me, the issue of appropriating the history of other people’s suffering has been something I have struggled with — I grapple with, argue with, go back and forth about whether or not it’s acceptable (morally or ethically) — for me to incorporate these images into the work.
I know, at least a little, what it’s like to feel otherness. I grew up in a Jewish family on the north side of Houston where I was one of a handful Jews in a conservative high school—a fact that many of my fellow classmates routinely made a point not to let me forget.
That’s one of the reasons I can’t just ignore the politics of what is happening right now with BLM; the chants from lit faces of men at night in Charlottesville; the amazing results from the landmark 2020 Supreme Court ruling, squashing the right wing attack on tribal sovereignty and how one unique case resulted in the largest restoration of tribal land in US history; nor these racist-as-fuck-images and words I found in these books.
For me, I feel that if we burn the books, erase the images, ignore the language, destroy the evidence— its history—our history— will be forgotten. Years later someone may question whether it “really” happened, dismiss it as fake news, much like the Holocaust deniers after the war.
Ultimately, like everyone else, I’m just trying to get through the shitshow of 2020. I am acutely aware of how many people are hungry, unemployed, homeless, sick, hospitalized, dead—and I cannot look away.
In these dark times, making collage-painting books has helped me deal with the sadness and desperation of what is happening—the sheer rage I feel when I tally in my mind the psychotic transgressions of Trump and his Republican sycophants.
Brecht was right, though — there will be singing.
About the author: Heather Bause Rubinstein is a painter, writer, curator and professor who divides her time between upstate Pennsylvania, New York City and Houston, Texas. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Greece; Pierogi Gallery, M David, Site Brooklyn and MANA Contemporary in New York; McClain Gallery, Devin Borden, Zoya Tommy, Gallery Homeland, the Blaffer Museum and RedBud Gallery in Houston and Galleri Urbane of Dallas. She recently co-curated “Under Erasure” with her husband Raphael Rubinstein at Pierogi Gallery in New York and “The Miraculous” Public Art Installation at the University of Houston.
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Catalogue essay: Raphael Rubinstein on Drew Shiflett
Joan Mitchell Foundation 2017 grants: Artist Images and links
Recto or Verso: What kind of artist are you?
VERNACULAR: A painterly conversation about abstraction