Benjamin Rubloffs graffiti-based paintings result from his walks through the streets of Berlin. He finds graffiti on almost every wall, photographs small details of them and subsequently transforms the images into mysterious abstract paintings. The ubiquitous, quickly sprayed signs, that may have already disappeared tomorrow, are turned into permanent art works, done in meticulous brush work. By taking these details out of their original context the artist turns them anonymous – and yet, even after their conversion, they still refer to a specific place.
Rubloff names the two series of these paintings, from which we present some examples, “Ciphers”, we might also say: codes or signs. The works of the first series from 2018, all in the same format, occasionally still reveal something like a place, such as the view from a fogged window, or a wall on which the markings are located. And indeed, there is an additional information sheet with a text for each work, which does not name the respective place, but which reflects on place and time.
In the second series, created in 2019 and 2020, the reference to specific situation is strongly reduced on the visual level. But the spatial effect of the representation still makes it possible to sense a “place”, and the picture titles clearly refer to certain streets or locations.
The Ciphers come in very diverse shapes; they are reminiscent, for example, of Abstract Expressionism as well as of constructivism. Sometimes their shape is precisely drawn, like the objects in American photorealism, sometimes cloudy and nebulous, as in a William Turner; now the single colored line dominates, then the surface. In any case, there is no stylistic unity – and how could there be, since the graffiti were created by different hands.
Graffiti cover the “surface” of the urban landscape – façades, fire walls, shop windows, billboards. Rubloff sees here a connection to our culture which is particularly built on surfaces and appearances. “Upon these surfaces are inscribed a set of ciphers, an elaborate temporary text, like a finger tracing a figure on fogged glass.”
The American artist is the flâneur who wanders through the city of Berlin and perceives these phenomena “en passant” – much like the German Walter Benjamin perceives the city of Paris in his “Passagenwerk”, The Arcades Project. The passer-by, the flâneur is familiar with the city, he knows its details, can read it like a language. In an empty shop window, for example: “there is a glimmer of performance,” says Rubloff, “action and trace, object and shadow.”
As up-to-date as graffiti may seem, they are ancient: wall carvings have been around for thousands of years. Modernism rediscovered them as objects of art. The Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï started documenting the pictograms on house walls in Paris in the 1920s; Jean Dubuffet adopted them as motifs in his works.
The American Cy Twombly, who lived in Rome, found the graffiti in the fifties and sixties during his travels through Europe and North Africa and drew them into his paintings as a scribble-like motif. Finally, in the late 1970s, graffiti established an art form of its own and became extremely popular (and just as annoying for some homeowners).
But even though Benjamin Rubloff’s works are based on graffiti, they are far from being expressive graffiti paintings themselves; rather they are works in the tradition of classical landscape and veduta painting. Among the Ciphers there are indeed works that look like landscapes, or like a view out of a window, the classical – romantic – motif of painting.
Benjamin Rubloff has written a substantial essay on landscape painting. In it, he describes how Cézanne, in repeating the ever-same motif of Mont Sainte-Victoire, through the continuously advancing abstraction, gradually strips off the specificity of the place – and nevertheless paints a portrait of this mountain.
Rubloff works in a similar way: he takes his motif, the detail of a large graffito, from a specific location. Through isolation – and magnification – this detail becomes untethered from its origial location. And yet the artist is concerned that it refers back to this particular place – the sense or notion of place and “our drive to situate ourselves” being an important point in his visual theory. In the first series of Ciphers he created a documentation for each work, in which he traces the place and what he experienced there in a poetically, reflective form.
In this way, the graffiti and the experience associated with them becomes a place and a process of memory: “I am interested in how practices of recall overlap, where photographic images and memories and the visceral experience of direct observation become intertwined, like the way one confuses a personal memory with a photograph, or a lived experience with a movie. My strategies aim to isolate and simplify images, with the assumption that a fragment or trace can illuminate something significant about the whole.“
It is the search for the things past, for time lost: What was there, who was I, why was I there? Rubloff actually works like Marcel Proust: the image that the artist presents to us is not a representation of what actually has existed (in Proust’s case, of what happened in the past), but rather an image of the remembrance of the original perception and thus a document of the phenomenon of time.
One goal of this distancing is that the viewer becomes aware of the process of perception. In his paintings installation “Victory Over the Sun” (2015) Benjamin Rubloff makes the perception of art – the spectatorship – a central theme. The group of works deals with a museum reconstruction of Kasimir Malevich’s show “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10” from 1915.
Rubloff paints Malevich’s pictures as he saw them on the museum wall, in their respective sizes, but distorted in perspective. The picture surfaces remain empty, which draws the viewer’s attention to the paintings as objects. “Through painting, I seek to shift the relationship between a viewer and an image. For me, painting is a way of destabilizing things, of creating a slippage that is productive in terms of how we grapple with images and their contexts.”
The emptiness of the surfaces in the Malevich project raises questions – and the answers are lacking. Secrets emerge, something remains hidden. Rubloff also addresses this theme in other groups of works. In the series “Architectures,” for example, he presents us houses without windows and doors, which obviously raises some questions – and he leaves them unanswered.
Similarly, the Ciphers, the graffiti-based paintings are surrounded by secrets: What do they mean, where do they come from, what do they want to tell us? “A lot of my work has to do with ideas of secrecy and concealment… Everything has become an image, but images remain rather mysterious and complex and, for me, there is always something secretive in them.“
This mystery also concerns the transformation of an everyday visual object into art. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein already practiced this process in the 1960s: He isolated a small single image from the narrative context of the comic strip and, with minimal changes, carved out its special design qualities. It was not least the enlargement of the small drawings into painting format that brought about the transformation. The same applies to Benjamin Rubloff. He resists the “seductive” and the rapid consumption of painting and incorporates stops that are intended to slow down the viewer, so to speak. He wants to make access to his pictures more difficult, to create an awareness of the experience of watching, of spectatorship.
His stops begin with the fact that he does not paint the motif itself, but a photograph of it. This is followed by the enlargement and finally the reproduction of the quickly sprayed graffiti character with the greatest precision in careful, slow brushstrokes. This technique is also very similar to that of Roy Lichtenstein in his “Brushstrokes” paintings. For both artists applies: What looks like action painting is actually the product of traditional work with the small brush.
Walter Benjamin pointed out that through the endless reproduction of a work of art its aura is lost.Today, says Benjamin Rubloff, the devaluation of the individual image comes along in a different way. It is true that the techniques of cell phones and social media are used to create and distribute individual and original, i.e. “auratic” images. But their similarity and abundance “are causing a phenomenon of image fatigue that stands on the threshold of blindness.” The aura is lost through overproduction.
Therefore, says the artist, “the primacy of the individual picture is an emphatic way of re-asserting the importance of visual experience. What would it mean to invoke the ritualistic role of images in restoring a sense of location, of being-in-the-world. These mysterious abstract paintings offer precisely this possibility: that an everyday marker of urban experience in a city like Berlin has the potential to slow down the spectator enough to become absorbed in a radical act of seeing that which is overlooked.”
Please view the artist’s works in our exhibition New Additions: Matthias Esch, Benjamin Rubloff. His essay, Windows to the World: From Landscape Painting to Instagram, traces the changes of this old art form through the ages. – If you like Benjamin Rubloff’s work you might also be interested in these artists from our portfolio: Daniel Grüttner, ter Hell, Forster Herchenbach, Nicholas Kashian, Christine Krämer, Victoria Pidust, Aaron Rahe, Bernhard C. Striebel and Jinny Yu.
Benjamin Rubloff was born 1975 in New York City. He lives and works in Berlin.
|2011||Cornell University, M.F.A.|
|2002||Harvard University, M.A.|
|1998||Wesleyan University, B.A. American Studies|
Selected Solo and Two-Person Exhibitions:
|2018||Comoscow (presented by Assembly gallery Poznan/Berlin)|
Art Vilnius (presented by Assembly gallery Poznan/Berlin)
Today, Assembly Gallery, Poznan, Poland
|2015||Victory Over the Sun, Kunstraum Ossastr., Berlin|
|2014||Ferne Aussichten, White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2013||Security, White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2012||What Would the Community Think? White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2011||Penumbra, Tjaden Gallery, Cornell University|
|2010||Let it Bleed, The Experimental Gallery, Ithaca NY|
Here We Are In the Years, Tjaden Gallery, Cornell University
|2008||Distant Prospects, Krammig & Pepper Contemporary, Berlin|
|2007||This is a Wilderness, Krammig & Pepper Contemporary, Berlin|
Selected Group Exhibitions:
|2019||Photospiel, Karl Oskar Gallery, Berlin, Germany|
|2013||Portas Abertas, Fórum Eugénio de Almeida, Evora, Portugual|
|2011||Ferne Aussichten, White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2013||Security, White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2012||What Would the Community Think? White Square Gallery, Berlin|
|2011||Meditations in an Emergency, DUMBO Art Center, Brooklyn, NY (curated by Christopher Lew)|
Signs in the Road, CRLab/Winkleman Gallery, New York, NY
|2010||Art Chicago, (presented by Wilde Gallery, Berlin) Chicago, IL|
Void, Gallery Robert Drees, Hannover, Germany (curated by Christoph Kivelitz)
Anthology of Optimism, MMX, Berlin
|2009||Spirits, Stadtbad Wedding, Berlin|
MFA Group Show, Cornell University
|2008||El Dorado Auction, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin|
Depot, Krammig & Pepper Contemporary, Berlin
|2006||Group exhibition: Der Hammer, Chashama Gallery, New York, NY|
A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today, ed. Margherita Dessanay & Marc Valli, Laurence King Publishing, 2014
Space of Engagement, Elephant Magazine, Winter 2012, Katya Tylevich
Melancholische Wesen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11.11.2006
After the Wall, Financial Times, 23.9.2005