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On Exhibit: pictures of pent-up energy

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In 1980 Nancy Rubins's Big Bil-Bored, a sculpture made of thousands of used appliances packed in concrete, was installed in Berwyn's Cermak Plaza Shopping Center to howls of protest. Headlines called it a "hunk of junk," and people demanded its removal. Last year at the Whitney Biennial in New York she displayed her five-ton Mattresses and Cakes, an almost surreal mix of store-bought cakes and used mattresses suspended from the ceiling--like the detritus of some decadent orgy, mysteriously descending from above.

Now at this weekend's Art 1996 Chicago, Rubins is presenting her ideas in a much less heavy medium: drawing. Two recent multipart drawings can be seen at Rhona Hoffman and Paul Kasmin, two of the some 180 galleries at the festival. But rather than hanging flat against a wall, they'll be displayed three-dimensionally, with drawings suspended in front of one another, almost forming a sculpture. And instead of just depicting an object, says Rubins, they're actually "layers and layers and layers" of pencil on paper. "In a way I'm pushing the limits of what a drawing is. It can be a picture of some flowers in a vase or it can be this other thing that is dealing with pencil on paper."

Rubins, who lives near Los Angeles in Topanga Canyon, traces the inspiration for her work partly to her first trip to California in 1974. "I saw a landscape that I'd never seen in my life--buildings made out of adobe, a huge rock in Morro Bay. It's a volcanic rock, something that sprung up one day like a mushroom." She also saw walls move in an earthquake. Like this still-evolving landscape, many of her pieces have a strangely suspended feel, as if they're on the verge of collapse (in fact a few early sculptures did collapse). "I started making these long, very thin walls just stacked with appliances," she says. "I could push one a little and it wavered back and forth. I really loved that it contained this mass and energy but was flexible and fluid."

It was when she threw her back out while mixing "concrete and straw and mud to build igloo-type lumps that ended up weighing like 2,000 pounds" that she tried drawing to deal with the same subjects, like the rock in Morro Bay. "I first started making drawings with very dense layered pencil on paper, as a way to talk about this huge dense enigmatic rock without using heavy materials. I started drawing these lumps, realizing that I could do something with pencil and paper that was the antithesis of what pencil and paper are."

Though the medium is different, Rubins finds her drawings "not dissimilar to the appliances--there's a certain kind of stored energy in them. When the paper's layered like that it's sort of like a battery--there's something under there that you don't necessarily have to see."

Art 1996 Chicago, at Navy Pier's Festival Hall, 600 E. Grand, will be held Friday through Monday noon to 8 and Tuesday noon to 6. Admission is $10 for one day, $20 for three, and $30 for five. Call 587-3300 for more.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Mattresses and Cakes" by Nancy Rubins.

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