In conversation with Victor Rubin

In conversation with Victor Rubin

In anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition ‘Room to Move’, Victor Rubin joins Fox Galleries curator Rebecca Agnew in conversation to examine how they ended up with 50 or so selected artworks spanning three viewing spaces. Their discussion covers the Castlemaine-based painter’s mentors, processes and inspirations, leaving you with a little bit of room for more.

Rebecca Agnew: Your career as an artist spans over fifty years, and over this period you’ve explored many different genres and experimented with different themes. How do you approach your practice and how has this changed over the course of your career?

Victor Rubin: Well, it’s always down to the question of how you put the paint down. I deconstruct in order to reconstruct, trying to find an image that comes out of the abstractions. I always look to find that balance between chaos and order, finding a clarity or balance through the structure. There are early works by Picasso and Braque that I have taken as inspiration, their processes are inspiration to me in this approach.

A feature of your forthcoming exhibition ‘Room to Move’ is the interior series. They revisit themes that you’ve looked at previously, but you’re obviously reinterpreting them with a different lens. Are they inspired by real places you’ve visited?

They’re imaginings, based somewhat on portals and doorways. Another example of the balance of chaos and order.

Victor Rubin, A Psycho-illogical cubist intake in a consumers room rose to a KitKat moment, 1977, Oil and collage on canvas, 120 cm by 120 cm

There are some symbols in the interior series that crop up in other works: a sense of depth, matrix, optical illusions, a façade that gets more and more unwieldly the further you look in. Take ‘A Psycho-illogical cubist intake in a consumers room rose to a KitKat moment’ as an example.

Yes, that one has a real surreal bend to it. The graphic or design is a sort of psychological cubism, as the figure relates to space and time around him. He’s inside a room as well, be it a cell, prison, or a cube, whatever that environmental habitat. It’s my take on pop art in a way, utilising the found object.

I like to bring a segment of reality into the painting, but distorted or disorientating. In terms of the physiological aspect of the figure, a Kit Kat wrapper takes the scene to another reality. To quote the slogan, it literally offers the viewer a break.

Thinking about your mentors and people who fostered your talent, who are the names you’re indebted to?

Well, it was always a family context to begin with. Mum went to art school in Norwich, and she would do my art homework in primary school, but I did eventually manage to get some work done of my own and I had Ken Unsworth as an art teacher in high school. He would correct my drawings in the staffroom, drawing over them. Martin James was another who was encouraging. It was recommended that I go to John Olsen’s Bakery Art School at the end of 1967 when I was 16 or 17. Bill Rose was a teacher there, as well as Janet Dawson. Donald Friend came in with his steel pens, a very vibrant and educative scene. I was the youngest there, so I was well looked after.

I wanted to learn how to paint, and Olsen told me “it would happen in time.” You had to put in the practice! It was an era where art teachers, Olsen in particular, would give demonstrations, drawing over your pictures, always showing you how it was done.
That era of working over someone else’s picture is frowned upon in educational circles today but I saw it as a real learning curve, forcing you to take on the advice whether you agreed with it or not.

You painted Olsen for the Archibald, and heavily documented the impressive amount of reworking and moving around of the composition. This documentation has now led to the creation of an NFT project, linking your original painting to a new form of digital collage. It seems like that your education in being bold takes away the sense of being precious, as you can be courageous in repainting and overpainting.

I’m not precious about it at all. If I can push it further, I’ll always choose that path.

Victor Rubin, Variations on Tom Roberts ‘The Golden Fleece’ 1894 , 1984-2006, Oil on canvas, 122 cm by 180 cm

‘Room to Move’ exhibits multiple works that are your takes on historical artworks, such as your wonderful version of the ‘The Golden Fleece’ by Tom Roberts. Your contemporary recontextualisations function as homages.

That one is a variation on a work in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, a smaller example than the one in the NGV. The notion of the figures in relation to the shearing process using those old-fashioned scissor shears really interested me as figures occupying a shared function place.

I like making studies of other people’s work because it offers you a certain freedom. You don’t need to think of what to paint, instead it becomes what you can observe and render through your own ability. I admired the reproductions long before I ever went overseas and saw great works of art in person. They’re a lot dirtier in real life too, you can appreciate their rawness. Looking at an old art book, there’s a very different sensibility to the reproductions there. I find the cracks in paintings to be so interesting, it isn’t really a deterioration but the expression of the life the work. The patina of 500 years is a completely different experience, but I’ll always continue to revisit these seminal paintings.

When you’re painting are you thinking about your viewer or are you just grappling your relationship to the process?

Well, I’m the primary viewer, so I must have control over what I’m doing. I’ll often take a break and come back to say ‘well, what can I do with this now’ before making the next move. The imperative is to always be your own critic, not your own connoisseur.

And what is it that keeps you so motivated after fifty years of practice?

You always live in hope that you’ll continue to do better work, trying something you haven’t done before, and express to the world how you’re seeing things now. It’s the way I justify my existence.


Fox Galleries presents Victor Rubin ‘Room to Move’ from April 2 to 30, 2022