Off The “Wall Art”

Philip Rubin PhotoIf readers have any information about these abandoned vehicles on Crown Street or the mysterious 50-foot high Renaissance perspective into which their drivers may have wandered, Philip Rubin wants you to contact him.

Rubin is the photographer who took this shot of a giant wall painting on Crown Street just east of Church back in 1992. Its artist is unknown, as is the original date the mural was painted. Today the work and its eerie evocation of an evacuated “School of Athens” by Rafael is long gone.

Such mysteries are one of the several pleasures of Wall Art: The Photography of Philip Rubin, which opened Monday night at the Atticus Bookstore and Café. It runs during store hours through Feb. 21.

Rubin is a scientist specializing in speech and music at Haskins Laboratories. His avocational obsession for 25 years has been the silent art of the photograph—specifically wall art in the urban centers of the cities he has visited.

The Atticus show contains 24 photographs of building facades from some 12 cities ranging from New Haven to Minneapolis to Wellington, New Zealand.

Many are set in parking lots where the building owners consented to have art make the experience of pulling into a slot more aesthetically pleasing. Many advertise the activities going on in the building inside.

Philip Rubin PhotoFor example, Jill Revard’s immense “Scarbo” is an excerpt from a piano score by Maurice Ravel. It makes sense that it monumentally adorns the wall of Schmitt’s Music Center on Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

Many of the photographs, like “Classical” of Crown Street, are from the 1980s and 1990s. At least five, including “Classical,” are by unknown artists. Rubin in his notes to the exhibition seeks to find out who did the anonymous works.

What’s particularly touching is how the show seems to make the point that photography is a transient art of light used to document immense works that at the time of their creation by their very size suggested more endurance. They turn out to be just as fragile and transient. Perhaps even more so.

“The artist is often unknown; the passing of time and the public venues invite unanticipated collaboration,” he writes ironically in the show’s notes.

Philip Rubin PhotoThat collaboration could mean a new building owner who wants to clean up the mural, a torrential rain washing out color or line; a building torn down, or a building put up and forever obscuring a 30-foot face of Marilyn Monroe. John Bailey painted “Marilyn” in 1981 in Washington, D.C. Rubin made the photograph in 2005. Is the work still there or—poof—is it gone?

Whatever the case, Rubin is scrupulous in wanting to preserve copyright and credit to the original artists wherever possible. 

Are Mr. Rubin’s works documentary or artistic in and of themselves?

Atticus bookseller Jeremy Hetzler, who helped coordinate the exhibition, said he thinks they are both. “It’s an art to make it [the wall art] look great in the photographs.”

The photographer was clear in his intentions. In a phone conversation from Haskins Laboratories where Rubin is the chief executive officer, he said: “My goal is not just to document, but to take pictures that other people would like to see.”

He said what especially intrigues him are wall art’s differing textures, “like the brick and the stucco.”

The wall art seems to fit nicely on Atticus’s walls. The uniform and modest twelve-by-sixteen size of most of the photographs pay homage to the immensity of the images they document.

Here and there, as in Jane Golden’s “Peace Wall,“ done in Philadelphia in 1999, you have a composition of intertwined hands that doesn’t give a clue that it is mural size. However, most show those omnipresent parked cars, lamp posts, or a cityscape in the background or along the photo’s border that orients the eye to the sense of scale. This visual revelation unfolds with an engaging slowness.

The two images of Rip Cronk’s “Venice Reconstituted,” 1989 murals along what appears to be Venice Beach, California’s funky boardwalk, for example, first draw you in with an image of a sexy roller-blading young woman who in a more innocent era might be called a magazine-size pin-up.

In your second visual pass, you notice No Parking/Tow Away Zone signs in the foreground that are perhaps a third of the size of the woman. You do a double-take at what you’re looking at, and pleasurably so.

There will be a formal opening and reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. If you know anything about long gone murals on Crown Street or other New Haven locations, Rubin particularly wants you to attend.

All proceeds of the sale of the photographs go to support the work of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven.

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