I realized that this stuff has been around a long time, and it’s passed through this odd transition. Before it was in the earth, it was floating as a molecule in outer space—it was part of somebody’s star, or part of somebody’s exploding planet.
Through sculptures assembled from discarded materials and graphite drawings that assume the appearance of liquid metal, Nancy Rubins transforms quotidian objects into artworks that exceed the sums of their parts. She explores the precariousness and limits of natural forces through large-format pieces with formidable psychological and physical presence. Working with salvaged commercial and industrial materials since the late 1970s, Rubins frequently combines features of assemblage and monumental sculpture to create dynamic works that are at once familiar and otherworldly.
Rubins has been preoccupied with achieving seemingly impossible production feats throughout much of her artistic career, bridging the worlds of engineering and art. In 1974 she completed a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and then moved to the West Coast to study at the University of California at Davis, where she received an MFA two years later. Around this time, she began collecting used appliances—from hair dryers to electric shavers, toaster ovens to televisions—which she included in large, semiflexible wall-like sculptures. Initially sourcing her materials from garbage dumps and thrift stores, Rubins mined not only the vast quantities of objects at her disposal, but also the history of each salvaged item.
From her early-1980s accumulations of domestic devices, which she assembled into gigantic tornado- or tidal-wave-shaped forms, Rubins’s practice evolved in the 1990s to include immense clusters of sizeable objects, such as boats, mattresses, or the deconstructed parts of enormously complex, manufactured machinery like airplanes and trailers. Rubins amasses these components into biological or arboreal growth patterns that often cantilever over pedestrian traffic below. As she does so, she continues to focus on the formal qualities of the salvaged objects.
The act of drawing is integral to Rubins’s practice, both in her vast body of densely rendered works on paper and in her use of stainless-steel wire in her sculptures, which creates linear yet three-dimensional forms of “drawing in space.” In the mid-1970s, Rubins began producing drawings of increasingly concentrated compositions, covering the entire surface of the paper with graphite to create shiny metallic surfaces that have endless depth of space as well as textured traces of the artist’s hand. While some iterations of these drawings comprise multiple large sheets of paper that are layered and affixed to a wall, others are volumetric, three-dimensional undulations that exploit the sculptural potential of the medium.
Rubins’s work has grown in scale over the course of her career, resulting in a body of sculptures that have been installed in prominent public locations. These include Big Pleasure Point (2006), a structure composed of more than sixty kayaks, canoes, and other small watercraft, which arched over the plaza at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2006. In 2013 Rubins began producing rhizomatic large-format assemblages comprising cast-aluminum playground animals bound together with cables. By the latter 2010s, this technique evolved to include the use of other materials, such as cast-iron, brass, and bronze animal sculptures. Following the life cycle of her chosen materials, Rubins hones the formal qualities of these discrete components. Held together by stainless-steel wiring in tension, these monumental aggregations appear to be suspended in a moment of temporary stasis and evoke the possibility of ever-changing plasticity. As a kind of palimpsest, Rubins’s work reminds viewers that what appears to be solid and static is in fact in a constant state of change.