Raquel Rabinovich on the invisible world, slowing down & mud as aesthetic
In a bright, airy studio infused with an uncanny sense of the ethereal, ensconced in a forest in upstate New York, Raquel Rabinovich is at work on sculptures and drawings that are subtle in the extreme. An Argentine expat who was once briefly imprisoned as a teenager for civil disobedience and a visual artist paradoxically concerned with “invisibility,” Rabinovich’s work occupies a radically organic territory of abstract art. Her recent sculptural pieces, the Emergences series, are most closely related to land art, featuring rock formations positioned in the path of the Hudson River’s tide. Ultimately, Rabinovich’s work is invested in a visual language that interrogates the essence of meaning itself. For example, her River Library, which is archived in a long wall of drawers in her studio, contains hundreds of river “texts” and takes the act of reading as metaphorical for the process of deciphering significance from objects. The “Gateless Gates” painting series emphasizes even more acutely the search for signs of meaning, which may be partially concealed even in direct view. The conceptual sensibilities driving Rabinovich’s work are neither impractical nor sentimental, and are rather directly intertwined with and inspired by the processes of nature. Therefore, the art objects Rabinovich creates are meditative, essentially puzzles for contemplation that reward the conscientious viewer with an avenue that leads from the plane of material to the transcendental.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
Your work is engaged in the plane of invisibility. What exactly does that mean?
I have been interested in invisibility for a long, long time. I remember a series of paintings I did in ’63 in Buenos Aires called The Dark Is Light Enough, and I think it was the beginning of this lifelong interest. When I say “invisible” I mean to look at something and see what’s behind it and behind it and behind it. Not to stay with the appearance of things but investigate and explore everything that is not visible or apparent seems to me to be a search that is very meaningful. That has been a search that led me to paintings, works on paper, sculptures and installations for the last 50 years. My sculpture medium when I lived in NYC during the 1980’s was glass. Then eventually, when I moved here to the country, I began to work with stones.
Stones, unlike glass, are not transparent and ‘invisible.’ Still, when I use them to create sculpture installations along the shores of the Hudson River, they become invisible at high tide because they’re covered by the waters of the river. These sculptures, called Emergences, exist in a perpetual state of flux, being gradually concealed and revealed with the rising and falling of the river tides. I’m interested in that process – not only how you see what you see, but how something emerges into view from being concealed. It could be a thought, it could be images, it could be whatever philosophical assumptions we have. In the case of the sculptures, the water covers them gradually so the process of emerging from being invisible to becoming visible is very slow.
It seems to me that our contemporary culture, especially our city culture is very fast: we have computers, digital images, cellphones . . . I want to slow down to be with the whole process. Perhaps the slowness in my art is a comment on contemporary culture in the context of nature. Nature respects the slowness of process. You cannot speed up evolution. You cannot tell a baby to be born faster. You cannot tell the plants in the garden in winter to show up today.
For everything, there is a process in time. I respect that when I work. There is a time for incubation, a time for being with what slowly emerges, a time for invisibility to be present.
You’re a bit of a land artist.
You could say that, though my art is and is not land art. It seems to me that most land artists tried to preserve [their art]. From Walter De Maria to Robert Smithson. For me, it’s not like that. It’s about letting go and not about control. I know from the beginning that when it’s completed, it’s not mine anymore.
How did you become interested in this art of the invisible?
I like the challenge of discovering something that is not obvious. I spent many years in Europe during the 50s and part of the 60s making art and visiting museums. Say I would go to Museo del Prado in Madrid and I see Velasquez. I look at the figure and ground in his paintings, but what I really ‘see’ and gets me is the background itself, which seems to me to be the essence of his paintings, just behind and around the figures. I think that that presence of the ‘invisible’ got me started with the concept that what we see is not what we see.
It seems like landscape is very important to you?
Not exactly landscape as we know it. I am interested in nature’s modus operandi and resonate with the cycles of nature. I am interested in using the context of nature to make references to impermanence and the passage of time.
Are there political or social implications to the process of trying to see what’s not obvious?
Not in a direct or literal way. For example, with the mud drawings, the series I call River Library, I use mud from rivers around the world as my medium. Mud embodies the history of the Earth and humankind. Like the alphabet of a language yet to be deciphered, like a yet unwritten history of nature and culture, functions like a text, providing a trace, a memory of our existence. I gathered mud from the Ganges in India and from the Hudson here. Also, other people who know what I’m doing and encounter rivers in their travels, gather mud, and bring it here or ship or send it to me. When I get the mud, I seem to get an alphabet with which to ‘write’ my drawings. Mud is invisible under the water, in the riverbed. It accumulates in layers. When something gets into the river, it doesn’t mix with what is already there. While the waters of the rivers constantly flow, the mud accumulates layer upon layer upon layer.
If you look at the Hudson River mud, if you see the latest layer that’s there, it’s the chemicals from General Electric. I’m not interested in the science part, but in the mystery, which is embedded in that mud. I say mystery because it’s not known in a rational way. I don’t mean something mystical. I mean something that is not obviously seen or known.
Rivers are repositories of history, the history of the planet, the history of people, the history of culture.
I’m interested in the theme of “text” as literal and metaphorical your work. You also did a piece using the work of Italo Calvino.
That was in the 80s, I was actually living in NYC at the time. That was when I began using letters and numbers. First, I used them to indicate proportions within the space of each drawing in the series “Temples of The Blind Windows.” I drew on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships within the drawings. During the 80s, I did a series of glass sculptures in which I drew also on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships between the glass panels of each piece. Starting with just using letters, I got interested in text itself. I became fascinated with a book I read at the time by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities, and also during the 80’s, I did a glass sculpture installation and a series of drawings based on that book.
I used the idea of an invisible city, what it meant for Calvino, to create my own city, which is not in the book, and then I used excerpts from the actual book to make seven drawings.
I remember writing to Calvino for permission to use his text and he was excited. He said, “Well, send me photographs.” By the time I wanted to send the photographs, he died.
Does literature inform you as an artist?
Indirectly, I would say yes. For instance, one of my favorite writers is Borges. I think that a certain way of seeing for me comes from him. The way he perceives reality and how he invites you into his world . . .
You did some paintings that involve text, right?
This is part of a series of maybe 20 paintings called “Gateless Gates”. The title is embedded into the painting and it is not obvious. You have to sort of dig it out of the paint itself. Gateless gate is a paradox used in Zen practice. The mind transforms itself when confronting the paradox. If you look deeply and spend time with the painting, then you will discover the text, which functions as a metaphor for what happens in the act of looking at a painting. You have to go through the ‘gateless gate’ to get to the painting because what counts in the painting is embedded in the painting itself. It’s not as if you add or take away meaning. Meaning is inherent in the painting. When you wonder what it means, you are already entering the process of painting itself.
How I hear you speak about “the process of painting,” I’m reminded of what I’ve read about the French Impressionist studies of light. I recall reading about how Monet would simply sit and watch how light changed before even beginning to paint.
I can relate to how sitting and thinking is part of the work. It is a sort of incubation. It also happens in nature and in every creative process: something is happening even if it is not visible or tangible yet.
What are you working on now?
I continue working on the two ongoing series that I mentioned before: Emergences and River Library. And I have just begun a new series of paintings, after 15 years during which I concentrated only on installations, sculptures and drawings.