Ketchikan painter David Rubin’s “how-I-ended-up-in-Alaska” story is unusual even by Alaskan standards: he came up in the early 1980s on the personal recommendation of Ken Kesey, whom he met at the Oregon Country Fair while playing in a band that was opening for the Grateful Dead.
One of the best things about this story is that it’s only one of many in Rubin’s repertoire; like the famous author who prompted his move to Alaska, Rubin is a natural storyteller, wielding a paintbrush instead of a pen.
Rubin will open his first solo show in Juneau on Friday at the Alaska State Museum. The works in the show span his entire painting career, with the oldest piece dating back to 1967, when he was 15 and a restless high school student in New York. Many are portraits of Ketchikan residents, others are landscapes – both represent “the faces of Southeast Alaska,” according to Rubin – and all of them, on some level, reflect his own “face” as well.
“An artist can’t help but have their signature in every brush stroke,” he said. “A lot of times people will say that portraits end up looking like the painter. You’re going by these inner parameters, the outline of a human face that’s yours, you can’t help but implant that in anything you do.”
This is true of his Southeast landscapes as well, he said, some of which include fantastical details from his imagination.
In a similar way, Rubin’s paintings also document the interaction between artist and subject as the artistic process unfolds. That’s the reason he doesn’t like to paint his portraits from a photograph.
“It’s kind of like it’s a record of a discussion, of hanging out together,” he said of his portraits.
As a kid, Rubin spent a lot of time at museums in New York, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, sometimes skipping school to get there. He fell in love with the works of the masters, absorbing as much material as he could. Naming favorites would be too difficult.
“It’s like which food do you like the best. How do you compare spaghetti with ice cream?” he asked.
Many of his portraits, which are done in oil, show the influence of those masters, including a portrait of Marilyn Monroe – an actress who defined the “modern classical nude” -- on her death bed, dramatically lit from above and being attended to by a winged angel. Or his portrait of Ray Troll and his family, which was inspired by Jan Van Eyke’s painting of Adam and Eve, in which naked images of Troll and his wife flank a central still=life painting of two fish.
“It’s called ‘The Troll Family Bible,’” Rubin said,” At the heart of their belief system, of course, is the fish.”
Or his pair of portraits of his dentist and his wife, both dressed in Edwardian finery.
Other Rubin paintings are examples of formal portraiture, such as a series of paintings of Tlingit elders and artists in full regalia, including a portrait of highly regarded Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge.
And in each case, Rubin has a great story to go along with the finished work, one that reveals the personality of the Ketchikan community as well as of the artist himself. In the case of the Shotridge portrait, for example, Rubin describes how he brought Shotridge’s intimidating mother, Tlingit elder Esther Shea, to see the painting in progress only to realize with horror that he’d spilled fresh red paint on the white ermine of Shotridge’s headpiece, made by Canadian carver Dempsey Bob, that Shea had been kind enough to let him borrow. (“It was like seeing blood,” Rubin recalled. “She just stood there and looked at me.”) Luckily he was able to get it out with turpentine.
Rubin’s works and the stories they tell reveal themselves in layer after layer -- and maybe that’s part of the reason why they’re never really done in his eyes.
“You can’t even enjoy the fact that (a painting) is done. You want to go back and fix this, fix that. As (Leonardo da Vinci) said, ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned.’”
Rubin will lead a portrait workshop for kids on Saturday at the museum; see this week's Arts for more info.
Also opening Friday at the state museum are “From Out,” a solo exhibit by Dick Benedict and “Ten Years of Alaskan Art.”