In an age when traditionally bound books are apparently being replaced by implements of the digital age, when textuality is supplanted by disposable “info,” this exhibition, at George Billis in New York City, evoked our ambiguous relationship to the book as artifact, as still life. These recent paintings of book piles are not trompe l’oeil, nor are they photorealism. If they evoke nostalgia, the paintings also recall stacks of books kept of necessity for future reference, for casual browsing, for doorstops. We of a certain generation are haunted by old books, lumbered with them, dependent upon them, fed up with them, in love with them. They furnish a room. Decorators buy them by the yard to fill a wall of shelves, libraries de-accession them, hardly anybody can destroy them. (Once in a while they have been burnt, but only because of what the words inside said.) That old problem remains of what to do with the old books? Pass them on, sell, donate, but don’t destroy. Ephraim Rubenstein paints them; in fact, he buys them in order to paint them. His long-thought-out arrangements of the books to one another, like Cézanne’s apples and pears, achieve a dialogue—formally, rhythmically. These books are not in fine bindings but bound in buckram or paper, some water-damaged, with broken spines or flapping labels, or are disbound completely, their contents most likely obsolete.
All paintings in the exhibition were oil on linen, with the exception of one pastel on paper. Their subject, colorful but faded old books, is set, in most cases, against a velvety black background. Skillful chiaroscuro indicates the influence on this contemporary realist of old masters such as Caravaggio and Manet. The paintings (all 2008) range in dimension from 10-by-8 inches to 48-by-72 inches, so that even the largest of the group achieves an intimacy that invites closer scrutiny. In Books: Pile XXVII (cover), for example, the way the glossy thick brushstrokes create the illusion of fore-edge and top-edge, reflecting ambient light, is seductive; we could almost reach into the painting and open this book. All these paintings play with the viewer’s expectations. The books, so skillfully painted as to draw us closer, only to discover blurred titles and text that cannot be read, are stacked so that we must view certain “piles” from various perspectives (from below or above or head-on). And the relation of a book pile to its picture plane—to its two-dimensional surface, as well as to the confines of its dimensions—is witty. None of Rubenstein’s paintings is to be viewed without a closer look, a suspicious look. Some small paintings compress a pile of books, to suggest the frame itself is a bookpress, so that the entire picture is of compacted book spines. Another, in a vertical frame, Pile XXIX (18-by-11 inches) shows only the edge of a pile retreating off to the right behind its frame.
The two largest paintings—Books, Mirrors and Lenses II (Day) and III (Night) —are identical in size and arrangement of content: books rhythmically stacked and cantilevered, an oval mirror, round magnifying glasses, nearly square diminishing glass, globular Victorian reflecting balls, all on a rectangular table with its drawer ajar to display another round glass object. The subject matter implicitly becomes a trope on the self-reflexiveness and transparency of language. There is a rhythmic, kinetic quality to the “piles” in the larger paintings, especially in another horizontal composition, Discarded Books V (36-by-52 inches) that leads the eye in an undulating course across colors (reds, greens, blues, yellow-tan) and angular shapes. One red book on the left has its front board reaching into the air like a wing, while the other books, showing white rumpled leaves and an occasional rubbed label, recline this way and that, carefully arranged in feigned disarray, like wise, faded, languorous neglected women in a harem.
Rubenstein, a mature painter devoted to his craft, has exhibited portraits, landscapes and still lifes at numerous galleries and museums, including the Butler Institute of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. His commissions include a large-scale painting of the Jefferson Memorial for the International Headquarters of Deloitte & Touche in Washington, D.C. Recipient of numerous honors and grants, including the Emil and Dines Carlsen Award of the National Academy of Design, he holds a B.A. in art history and an M.F.A. in painting from Columbia University. For a youthful formative year, he was an extraordinary fellow at Cambridge University, England, painting the water meadows and fen country that inspired British landscape artists. Since the 1970s, his activities promoting interdisciplinary studies include co-organizing arts festivals, giving public lectures and publishing essays in American Artist, Linea and American Heritage magazines. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Rubenstein’s project addresses the book as representative of diverse aspects of culture, as well as a revered, if aged and compromised, culture in itself. The paintings are exquisite in their detached sympathy, depicting piles of old books that are “with all faults,” as antiquarian bookmen would say. Rubenstein’s solo exhibition ran February 3–28, 2009. George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 645-2621. On the web at www.georgebillis.com