Gideon Rubin was in his London kitchen, getting his three girls ready for their day, when he opened a package from Amazon. Rubin had asked his wife to purchase pre-World War II Nazi publications for an art project he was doing on Sigmund Freud’s 1938 escape to England from German-controlled Austria, and she’d found “something quite good.” The package was wrapped in aging, brown paper and tied together by an old, thin rope.
“It was a very eerie experience,” Rubin tells SF Weekly. “It felt like it hasn’t been ‘opened’ for many years. … And as I opened the package, I got chills running down my spine.”
That’s because Rubin encountered pages of Hitler’s writing in English, not German. His wife had bought him all 18 serializations of a 1939 English translation of Mein Kampf — the autobiography and political manifesto that propelled Hitler’s rise and subsequently the Holocaust that killed more than 15 million people, including six million Jews. To escape Hitler’s shadow, Rubin’s own grandparents fled Europe in 1939, and he was raised in Israel before traveling the world and moving to London. For days after that Monday morning, Rubin hid away his new copies of Mein Kampf. He was too flustered even to look at its words and illustrations.
“I wanted to throw it or burn it,” he says. “I needed to get rid of it.”
But then Rubin did something he’d done with previous art projects: He began modifying Mein Kampf and abstracting it. On multiple pages, he blackened or excised the faces of Germans and Nazi sympathizers who were supposed to represent the perfect race, and he crossed out text that was supposed to rationalize the Germans’ supposed superiority — and the supposed inferiority of “impure” people.
“The edition came with your weekend magazine,” Rubin says of his serialized edition, “and had a lot of images — which the original wouldn’t have had — because it had to explain the text to the English reader.”
Rubin’s new exhibit at Hosfelt Gallery, “The Kaiser’s Daughter” — which extends the art exhibit that Rubin had this year at London’s Freud Museum — features paintings based on his Mein Kampf printings and other Nazi-era magazines. People are depicted bicycling, horseback riding, and getting ready for a night out. But their eyes, eyebrows, noses, and mouths are missing, essentially painted over with masks. Like the Mein Kampf serialization, Rubin’s artwork at Hosfelt is foreboding — menacing, even. But the foreboding is packaged in scenes of idealized happenings, so standing before a piece like Tuxedo is to be caught in a spiral of artistic tension. How do you reconcile the beauty with the dissonance?
That sort of paradox is a theme in many great artworks, of course, including Elmer Bischoff’s 1969 painting of a seemingly wealthy couple, Yellow Lampshade, which coincidentally also incorporates a painted-over face. Instead of de-humanizing the painting’s subjects, the face masks turn the subjects into more universal stand-ins. Almost like mannequins. Without a face to focus on, art-goers are prompted to look elsewhere in Rubin’s paintings. Usually with portraits, says Rubin, viewers go first to the face — to meet the subjects’ eyes, and then circle around the artwork from there. Tuxedo and other works in “The Kaiser’s Daughter” upend that instinct.
“I’m interested in other things — in mannerisms and other signifiers that make us who we are,” Rubin says by phone. “My paintings are minimal and there’s not much in them — so it [emphasizes] every little nuance, every little tilt of the head. I want to focus on the other stuff.”
Hosfelt Gallery’s concurrent exhibit, “Anoka Faruqee: structural color,” also challenges the way we perceive and see art. Faruqee’s multitude of pieces are large, shimmering, album-like squares — with grooves and textures that make them appear to be revolving in real time. But they aren’t revolving. It’s their colliding layers, inlays, and overlays of paint — and the way those layers play with people’s eyes and light — that give Faruqee’s artwork its complex allure.
Faruqee, who made the pieces with her partner David Driscoll, used a hardware-store tool called a trowel to dig into the paint and create the grooves and imperfections that make a work like 2017P-18 come to life.
Faruqee, who is director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art, draws upon myriad sources and influences, including Islamic geometry and Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. In a March 2017 essay for her book The Visible Spectrum, Faruqee writes that “the space between perception and idea is a spectrum” rather than an absolute and that form and content are often closer in proximity than people think. “Anoka Faruqee: structural color” was a chance for Faruquee and Driscoll to put that theory into practice.
“Any kind of sense of a shimmer that you get is an optical shimmer,” Faruqee says by phone from New Haven, Conn. “It’s not reflective or iridescent paint. It’s the effect of the colors interacting with one another, and how your eye puts that together as light. Transitions of color feel like light. And if you’re at an angle, spatially the lines will converge and get closer together.”
Driscoll came up with the idea of working with a trowel around 2012. Faruqee says the instrument is almost like a comb: “The trowel was a technique that David innovated. He has a background in construction management, so he had one of those trowels, and we’d talked about, ‘Is there a way to create interference patterns through paint.’ ”
Seeing “Anoka Faruqee: structural color” and “Gideon Rubin: The Kaiser’s Daughter” at the same time is to quickly cross the bridge between abstraction and figuration — and to realize how easily it is to make that passage. Faruqee and Driscoll’s grooved works are mounted on canvases that, on their sides, show off the splatters and run-offs that emanate from the artwork’s gestations. We see both the finished work and what some people would call the unfinished sides — but Faruqee and Driscoll kept in those sides for a reason.
“It provides an interesting counterpoint to what’s happening on the surface,” Faruqee says. “And it also provides a clue to the process. These things are so mysterious as paintings, you almost don’t know what you’re coming across.”
To art-goers who want complete portraiture, Rubin’s paintings can also feel “unfinished.” Not only are they missing complete faces, many of the paintings incorporate basic forms and colors. They could be settings from anywhere — not just Germany.
The everyday scenes in “The Kaiser’s Daughter” undermine the idea that Nazi Germany was only driven by military-wearing officers. Nazi sympathizers existed all around the world, including England. In 1939, as Freud was in London succumbing to cancer, he would have been able to read the Mein Kampf serialization that Rubin now owns. Like his other art projects, “The Kaiser’s Daughter” is about historical memory. But it also takes an indirect dig at Israel’s current conservative government and its policies, and at the current White House.
“It is a time,” Rubin says, “of political intolerance and fear of the ‘other.’ ”
Yes, it is. Rubin found a way to delve into the subject of evil and its ability to exist in succeeding generations. Faruqee’s exhibit is an eye-catching respite from that very idea.
“Gideon Rubin: The Kaiser’s Daughter” and “Anoka Faruqee: structural color,” through April 28, at Hosfelt Gallery, 260 Utah St. Free; 415-495-5454 or hosfeltgallery.com