Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin.
These sage and eloquent words of the great writer James Baldwin echo in my mind as I witness the current events happening in the place where I was born, the United States of America. I wonder how this has all happened, how we have come to create a society that indulges the sadistic and pathological actions I witness in the acts of police against African American citizens, in the rape culture, in the islamophobic remarks and discriminations including the Muslim bans, in so much ill will and cruelty towards immigrants and the poor. Our cities are now burning, riots, confusion, anger, and solidarity come together at the boiling point, the crucible is reforging our society and regardless of our will or volition, things will have to change. With the backdrop of Covid-19, 100,000 in the US dead already, the inherent structure barricades against the poor, the uneducated, against African Americans, women, and non-heterosexuals, and bolsters the upper class white man.
To be Black and male in America seems the direct inverse of being an educated White male in America.
Joshua Rubin in his New York studio, photo credit: Anne Murray
The educated white male walks down the street entering and departing establishments without much thought to the time, place, or conclusions that may be drawn through situational inferences, while the black male struggles against the assumption of guilt from morning to night, in virtually every place he dwells; in reality, there is no safe place for the black male in America. In effect, the recent capture and subsequent death of George Floyd through the negligent and prejudicial 8 minutes of kneeling on his neck by a police officer, which led to his death, was a public execution.
Art in our society has long been used as a point of reference to historians establishing the perspective of an everyday person looking at society through the lens of the individual and boldly telling it like it is. This is the position of artist, Joshua Rubin, a painter who has chronicled the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, islamophobic remarks and drawings, of the everyday person, in America’s ultimate melting pot, the Art mecca, which is New York City. His series, Exposed Human Attitudes, acts as a sociological chronology of the development and augmentation of prejudice and violence towards different groups in America since the 9/11 attacks. He has meticulously acted as a vehicle of reproduction, a medium of sorts, painting exact replicas of photos he has taken of these remarks and drawings, in the bathrooms of construction sites at some of the most celebrated edifices in New York City.
His process is painstaking, traditional, using classical glazes, layer upon layer, and reproducing every detail of the surface and lines of the original graffiti by an unknown human who wrote these libatious remarks, offered up to the deities of power and oppression in America, in the secret ceremonial setting of the port-a-potty and public restroom. By day, Rubin restores these edifices, working alongside immigrants and minorities on construction sites and preciously caring for the establishments of the public and private buildings, which we recognize as distinctly a part of our New York skyline. On nights and weekends, he is the artist as activist, quietly recording in history the offences of humanity written on the bathroom walls for all to see in their private moments of defecation. The glazed layers are a huge contrast to the content; they are as beautifully crafted as the costumes in a disturbing Peter Greenaway movie, which adds to the bitter aftertaste of seeing them firsthand. With the same distinct sheen of the work of the masters of centuries past, his technique is flawless, emphasizing even more the vulgarity in the grotesque comments and drawings depicted so accurately from the originals in scale and detail.
200 Park Avenue 02, oil painting by Joshua Rubin
Visiting his studio on several occasions over the years both in person and more recently through ZOOM platform meetings, we have discussed the toll it takes to create these works, which are sometimes very difficult to face and accept as faults in our humanity. Rubin approaches them as if a father, a caring and loving being who tries to heal and give comfort. He recognizes the privilege he has been endowed with as a white male and he uses his skills as an artist to bring the root causes of oppression to the foreground for careful observation and rectification.
Battery Park 3, oil painting by Joshua Rubin
Rubin responds to the current crisis, “ It's hard to find words for what is and has been going on in this country. I'm at a loss for what to say as I watch the images of the Great American Experiment literally go up in flames. As the richest nation in the world with almost endless resources, we can't find the decency to give our black and brown brothers and sisters the basic tenants of humanity: equal opportunity to health care, an education, the peace of mind that their children can go jogging without being hunted down by ignorant white men!!! We brought this on ourselves. I'm pissed, and hurt, and ashamed. Fuck!”