Small of stature and big on ideas, lively, talkative, and more than a little impishly intellectual, Meridel Rubenstein has for four decades successfully pushed the boundaries of post-modernism in photography and installation through original photo-processes, and a socially active, post-feminist (dare we say, humanist) figurative engagement with environmental issues. Or as the artist succinctly puts it when asked about the germination of her diverse bodies of work, “There are three things that have to be present for me to start a project-the body, war, and nature.” Her eyes darken; her expression becomes serious. “History is always really important. When everything I’m thinking about at the time comes together in one story, that’s when I know I have to do it.”
Born in Detroit in 1948, and spending summers at the family farm in Vermont, Rubenstein describes herself as “always city/country conflicted.” She majored in film “and protesting Vietnam” at Sarah Lawrence. In the late 1960s, she worked with a left-wing, agit-prop film collective in Vermont, along with members of New York Newsreel. Just as her own experimental filmmaking process led to a “film of stills,” she had the good fortune to study at MIT with photographer Minor White. “He was the quintessential modernist, “she recalls. “He taught me purity and sequence.” In 1977, she completed her MFA in photography at the University of New Mexico where she worked with surrealist Van Deren Coke. He introduced her to a far more experimental approach. “So I have both sides, you see. A part of me as an artist that is almost 19th century, and another part that is much more open conceptually.”
Her technique developed over many years of making large-scale palladium prints of people and place, sometimes stamped with text and mounted on steel, or presented in even more novel ways-printed on glass, afloat on a boat, etc.-while her content took root in her concern for universal human and environmental rights. Similar concerns drive the work of Ai Weiwei, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Francis Alÿs, Christian Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer, and Mel Chin, who are properly her peers. Her early 1990s masterpiece, Oppenheimer’s Chair, a stunning glass house and video meditation on how hot it might get to sit in the driver’s seat of the Manhattan Project for all eternity, is being considered for the permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment this year. This comes 20 years after SITE Santa Fe commissioned it for their first biennial, which opened by chance exactly on the 50th anniversary of the first Trinity test-the small coincidence that set the piece in motion.
Today Rubenstein divides her time between Santa Fe and teaching at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. This year she has two solo shows-in Santa Fe this spring at David Richard Gallery, and in the fall at her longtime San Francisco venue, Brian Gross Fine Art. And she’s taking another trip to Iraq, the epicenter of civilization, as part of her latest boundary-blending art experiment. “Eden Turned on its Side,” the title of her new trilogy, denotes a conceptual, photo and multi-media based project. The three parts are Photosynthesis-“a straightforward representation of the carbon cycle” focused on beautifully shot and altered images of leaves and trees-The Volcano Cycle-mixed-media light magic performed with imagery from the Pacific Ring of fire, raising the possibility that nature’s destructive forces are also renewing-and Eden in Iraq. This ambitious final segment encompasses Rubenstein’s directorship of a collaborative architectural, art garden project in the Mesopotamian marshes with Nature Iraq, an NGO dedicated to water remediation. The centerpiece is an elaborate, elegantly designed wastewater garden on the ancient marsh site in southern Iraq that many consider to be the Biblical Eden. The landscape architectural forms, the shapes, colors and volumes, are aesthetically derived from a post-modern mix of the eons of Mesopotamian mythologies and cultures that have flourished and foundered in the region.
The artwork exists primarily as a conceptual set of connections between people and places depicted in haunting landscapes, unique multimedia works, and symbol rich landscape architecture. In Rubenstein’s work, the overarching focus remains on the human heart, and human rights in relationship to land, and to the natural environment. She sums it up nicely: “After millennia of destruction, can Eden be restored? In the largest sense, that’s really the question I want this work to ask.”
Meridel Rubenstein’s show, “Eden Turned on its Side: Photosynthesis Part II,” could be seen at David Richard Gallery, in Santa Fe, from May 20 – June 21, 2015. www.davidrichardgallery.com
“Eden Turned on its Side: The Volcano Cycle-Between Heaven and Earth,” a solo show by Meridel Rubenstein, opens September 12 at Brian Gross Fine Art, in San Francisco. www.briangrossfineart.com