With public commissions across the United States and in Europe, Nancy Rubins has established a reputation as one of the foremost sculptors on the contemporary art scene. The Weatherspoon Art Museum is currently featuring a one-person exhibition of Rubins’ work co-curated by director Nancy Doll and curator of exhibitions Xandra Eden. Although Rubins has had more than fifty solo exhibitions, this is the first to explore the relationship between her drawings and sculpture. In no work is this more apparent than Drawings and Hot Water Heaters from 1991-95. The title is a literal one, describing the materials used for a sculpture composed of eighteen corroded water heaters, bound together with tie-wire cable and blanketed with drawings. Using graphite on collaged paper, Rubins built up the surfaces in layers, then shaped and draped her drawings to convey as convincing an illusion of spatial depth as she achieved in the underlying sculpture, which consists of the cylindrical heaters, juxtaposed, overlapped, and cantilevered in actual space.

The drawings shown in the Weatherspoon’s retrospective exhibition date from 1975 to the present. Only one is in a conventional frame behind glass. All are made with graphite – not those #2 pencils Rubins would have used in school decades ago, but thick, square sticks of graphite that she rubs into paper laid out on her studio floor. Working to the sound of jazz in the background, she improvises until the sheets of paper acquire a burnished glow that contains a trace of the energy expended in making them. Some are then crumpled like taffeta, others bent like aluminum foil. The drawings are not complete until they are hung. At the Weatherspoon, one drawing levitates like a dark rain cloud in one corner of the lofty McDowell Gallery. Others are stretched out on the long walls where they beg the difference between reliefs made with paper and those carved or cast from the traditional materials of sculpture.

In the Weatherspoon exhibition, Rubins’ monumental sculpture is represented by Drawings and Hot Water Heaters and five studies for some of her widely publicized commissions. The materials she uses to create her large-scale sculpture are anything but traditional. Since the early ’80s her materials of choice have been discarded airplane parts and abandoned boats, all salvaged from junk yards. It is important to Rubins that the recycled parts shed their original identities and transcend their original uses. Whether or not they do so is in the mind and eye of the viewer. For this viewer, the clusters of model canoes, rowboats, and flat-bottomed boats made as a study for the installation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation resemble a flamboyant bouquet of exotic flowers. In the study for an arched gateway to the San Diego Convention Center, a flotilla of fishing, pleasure, and naval boats looks as if it had been assembled to restore order to the city’s harbor after a storm. In the transformative process of making art, the wreckage of a storm takes on the order of a carefully-calibrated composition designed to complement a specific public place. Although this work was never realized, another version juts out precariously from the roof of San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, seemingly reaching out to the ocean on the horizon.

How Rubins transforms water heaters, airplane parts, and boats into impressive sculptural objects is as much a feat of skilled engineering as an exercise of the creative imagination. Her processes are clearly visible in the sculptures and are also recorded in a series of short films shown at the Weatherspoon. Filmmaker Michael Rudnick condenses days of work into minutes, documenting Rubins’ crew of sturdy assistants as they manipulate forklifts, cranes, and pulleys to lift parts and secure them in place with steel cables. At a distance the taut lines of the cables look very much like minimalist drawings in space, but at close range it is clear that their function is more important than their linear precision. By Rubins’ own account, she is not so much interested in meticulous craftsmanship as she is in ideas. Although she herself is reluctant to claim ownership of any preconceived ideas that might inform her work, she does not discourage viewers from attaching associative meanings to her transformed materials. The process of looking is therefore as important to constructing meaning as the process of making.

The Weatherspoon exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that is generously illustrated and handsomely produced. Essays by Doll and New York based critic Nancy Princenthal place Rubins’ work in the context of art history and contemporary practice. Doll makes the compelling argument that Rubins brings a feminist perspective to the male-dominated tradition of monumental sculpture, creating “a space of her own.” Princenthal’s focus on materials and process as content reveals nuances in work that at first glance appears more unabashedly exuberant than understated and subtle. Rubins’ own voice is added to the catalogue text in the interview conducted and edited by Eden. Responding to questions with characteristic candor and spunk, she traces the arc of a career propelled by risks that have not always been met with critical acclaim. For the duration of the exhibition the Weatherspoon will offer related programming, including gallery tours by the curators and a Spring Family Day. For more information on all the related offerings, click here.

(Minor corrections entered 3/2/14.)