NARROWSBURG, New York — Most every artist must establish, to some degree, their relationship to the art canon. Some endlessly reference it, while others reject it; artist Allan Rubin, on the other hand, renders his artistic heroes into three-dimensional sculptures made from upcycled tin cans.
Rubin really puts the “can” in canvas, applying his paintings to metal rather than fabric. In 2016, Rubin created his first master artist sculpture of Picasso, touching off a body of work called CANON, now on display at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance.
“At first I made portraits of my cats and myself and my partner, CANdy Spilner,” said Rubin, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I became excited about the possibilities of the new material, because I could work smaller, make more works faster, not overload my already cramped studio, and delight my artist friends and followers who encouraged me to keep making can portraits. At first I resisted LABELing myself as a can artist. But now I’m willing to accept that this is my future.”
In addition to providing fodder for dad jokes, Rubin’s sculptures are neat combinations of geometry and painting, transposing the two-dimensional, highly stylized self-portraits created by famous artists throughout history onto the 3D surfaces of his metal constructions.
After several years at it, Rubin has nailed down his process.
“Tomato sauce cans are already shaped like heads,” he said. “Cookie tins sometimes make good torsos. Bean cans are just right for arms and necks. Sardine cans make great hands. Lids have rings embossed on them that work perfectly for ears, and also become noses that I have learned to bend, slot, and tab onto the faces. But the underlying imaginative thrill comes from the transposing of a flat-painted subject into three dimensions and the IRONy of the realistic copying of the fluid original onto a rather clunky and unyielding surface.”
Forty-eight of 56 portraits in the CANON series are of artists (and 20 of those, Rubin reports, are female); all are constructed from a wealth of donated cans. Overall, his subjects cannot depart too much from the existing canon, since Rubin only renders artists whose self-portraits are part of the art historical record, but his collection is full of delightful surprises and inclusions that range far beyond the most obvious choices (which are also represented).
“I do feel the art canon has been resistant to including non-male, non-Western European/American artwork and we are poorer in experience for that,” said Rubin. “But I feel we each compile our own canonic list. Mine includes Asian, AfriCAN, South AmeriCAN, Australian aboriginal, and much more art than I learned about in art history class. Art is a world to inhabit and participate in and the vaster its borders, the richer are we.”
Perhaps the only downside of Rubin picking up the styles of other painters is that it deprives him of his own distinct aesthetic. Still, he manages to make seemingly serious subject matter playful and funny, while giving the sense of an artist very much in conversation with his heroes.
And, however one feels about can art as a burgeoning genre, one has to admire his can-do spirit.
“Working with metal might just make me a cutting-edge artist,” he said, “except that I wear gloves to protect me.”