Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin

Sanda Mendelsohn Rubin, Passing Storm, 2009, Courtesy L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, CaliforniaSandra Mendelsohn Rubin’s spring exhibition, “Above and Beyond,” at L.A. Louver in Venice, California, seemed steeped in serene pantheism. Her cloud studies and landscapes of rolling hills are easy to place in the tradition of Romantics such as Corot and Constable. Yet her paintings also grow out of a specific American sensibility. Born and raised inLos Angeles, Rubin graduated from UCLA in 1979, and many of her earlier paintings have a strong Southern California vibe. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she created a number of unpopulated urban vistas—Malibu nocturnes, apartment houses or intersections at twilight or in midday glare, without a human in sight—that are both compositionally elegant and slightly sinister, in a film noir way. This unease carries over into her still lifes, starkly lit arrangements of off-beat objects, seen in “Shapes and Shadows,” a 2003 exhibition at L.A. Louver.

“Above and Beyond” is Rubin’s eighth solo show at the gallery, and it demonstrates that the artist, now in her early 60s, continues to develop her distinctive style. Rubin moved to the Anderson Valley in Northern California two decades ago, and the rural landscapes in this show celebrate the space and light of the countryside. Rubin works primarily from direct observation, but photography can be a useful tool, especially in the case of the unusual work that gives the exhibition its title. Above and Beyond (2010–11) is an unconventional triptych, consisting of an aerial view of her studio and garden and smaller images of the driveway and the valley view from the property. Works that focus on buildings offer the greatest sense of continuity with the Los Angeles pictures. The softly glowing, simple geometric structure at the center of The Bungalow (2009–10)—set back from the viewer, surrounded by darkness and overshadowed by an imposing tree—raises narrative expectations, just as the city’s apartment houses do, albeit with more of an into-the-woods fairy tale quality.

It is in the pure landscapes, however, that Rubin seems to go “above and beyond” the usual human preoccupations and encounter nature head-on. She brings a lifetime of astute visual thinking to her celebration of natural beauty. These paintings never descend into mere pretty pictures. Her most distinctive strategy lies in her choice of format. Sky studies that diminish the ground line of a land mass, or do away with it altogether, can capture a buoyant sense of freedom, but every painting needs structure, and Rubin is adept at shaping the viewer’s experience. In the vertical Passing Storm (2009), a nearly black, irregular line of hills at the extreme bottom edge of the picture supports a massive pile of clouds, dark grey on the underside but luminous white above, beyond the danger of rain. The way the artist slices off the sides of the huge cloud bank emphasizes the breadth of the sky. Another vertical sky scene, Light in Transition (2008–09), is far less architectural. Without a baseline landscape, the diaphanous shreds of cloud seem lighter, more like tricks of the light than bearers of rain. Rubin moves even closer to abstraction in extreme wide-format paintings such as Clouds (9-by-54 inches) and Horizontal Clouds (6-by-46½ inches), both from 2008, where the spaghetti-box shape sharpens our perception of the sky as infinite space.

This attenuated format also creates a feeling of the sublime in a series of panoramic landscapes. Valley in Early Summer (2008, 9-by-54 inches) is a horizonless vista of wooded rolling hills. Even without any sky being visible, the grandeur of the space is articulated through the play of light, which warms the top edges of trees and lays out sharp shadows across fields in grass green, soft grey and pale fawn. Lifting Fog (2008, 9-by-54 inches) is tilted up to show the sky, but the artist uses mist to instill a sense of mystery. There is a temporal as well as spatial movement in this widescreen landscape, as the eye moves from the clear, enameled blue sky, on the extreme left, to the shrouded grey forms, on the right. The way Rubin frames the topography further underscores the perceptual shift. On the left, the focus is sharper, and the rich dark-green foliage is pushed up to the picture plane. On the right, the trees are blurred silhouettes on a distant rise—a nicely judged demonstration of aerial perspective. Rubin’s oil paintings are rooted in the particulars of the place she lives. She is a keen observer of the landscape’s subtle curves and the daily narrative of light and shade. But a good artist goes “above and beyond” the visual facts. Her sophisticated framing of the world she sees, her unexpected angles of vision give these works a contemporary intelligence. “Above and Beyond” was on view April 28–May 28, 2011, at L.A. Louver, 45 North Venice Boulevard, Venice, California 90291. Telephone (301) 822-4955. On the web at www.lalouver.com

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3