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In delicate yet trenchant sculpture, artist traces family history

Tammie Rubin welcomes the tension people feel when they view her porcelain sculpture.

At De Stijl Gallery, Rubin’s sculptures are arranged on mantel-like shelves. Their detailed surfaces are textured with pinpoint-size porcelain dots and thread-thin glazed lines. The delicacy is captivating, as is the visceral materiality.

And yet their conical forms with eyelike slits more than suggest hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan.

“There is often beauty to be found in the mundane and even in the horrific,” Rubin says. After all, the form of a cone, she points out, is hardly specific to a Klan hood. Variations of conical hats echo throughout history and world cultures, from noblewomen in 15th-century France to the dunce’s cap of popular culture.

“And a cone can function as a filter or a transmitter of sound like megaphone,” she notes.

For Rubin, it’s less about a single interpretation of an object’s symbolism than it is about recognizing the jumble of multitudinous meanings we usually bring to our interpretation of the world.

“I’ve always been interested in the way forms can mean many different things — how they traverse over a range of associations and historical allusions, how they often bring up conflicting connotations for us.”

The current exhibit at De Stijl Gallery is Rubin’s first in Austin. She relocated here a little more than a year ago when she joined the faculty at St. Edward’s University, where she teaches sculpture. For five years previous she was on the art faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana.

The body of work she has exhibited nationally for more than the past decade features intensely colored forms, usually cast in porcelain from mass-produced consumer objects (toys, plastic food packaging, household tools) and almost surrealistically arranged, the surfaces intensely ornamented with bulbous dots, incised sinuous lines and stipples undulating around swathes of piping.

In a conceptual manner, Rubin dismantles familiar objects to create new, chimerical oddities with sumptuous surfaces.

Her sculptures at De Stijl, however, are the most specifically biographical that she’s made.

The delicate dots and spidery lines covering her conical hatlike forms are actually abstractions of the routes of the Great Migration, the movement approximately 6 million African-Americans made from the rural South to northern industrial cities in search of better economic and social opportunities.

Rubin’s late parents — both Mississippi-born — made the journey to Chicago as young people in the 1950s, taking the Illinois Central rail line north.

A few details emerge in “Illinois Central 57/59,” a sculpture series of used laboratory beakers Rubin hand-etched with images — of collard greens, of her mother in a high school graduation photo right before she left for Chicago in 1959 — and words — “Civil Rights Act” — that reference her parents’ story.

Rubin, 41, was born and raised in Chicago, the youngest of three. Rubin’s father was a deputy sheriff for Cook County; her mother a cosmetologist.

Rubin attended Lutheran schools through high school. And that deep experience with the church and its iconography impressed on Rubin how potent objects can be — how we readily imbue objects with complex symbolic meanings.

“The reliquaries in church, the altar and its adornments — it all had an impact on me,” she says. “It made me aware of the narrative power of objects, the epic quality of the stories they can communicate.”

With its museum-rich landscape and legacy of world-known architecture, Chicago itself proved Rubin’s biggest and most indelible creative and visual influence.

“I’m an urbanite — an inside person,” she says. “I’m really not interested in nature; I’d rather be inside. And I’ve always been intrigued by manmade objects.”

At college at the University of Illinois, Rubin was an undecided liberal arts student when she found herself increasingly drawn to art-making, inspired by a ceramics professor who deftly balanced a professional art career and his role as a teacher.

She graduated with degrees in studio art and art history and went on to the University of Washington for a master’s degree.

Though Rubin received plenty of encouragement and support from peers and colleagues, hers was a singular academic trajectory.

“There were never a lot of black students in any of the art programs I’ve attended,” Rubin says. “And as a student I never had an art professor who was black.

“Since I’ve been a professor myself I’ve seen (the diversity in art school) get somewhat better. But it’s always been kind of a lonely endeavor for me.”

Augmenting that singularity is Rubin’s use of ceramics, a medium many in the art world dismiss as nothing more than the stuff of practical craft.

Her résumé bears this out. Rubin’s work has more often been featured at craft-focused galleries and museums than tony contemporary art centers.

But for Rubin, such a dismissal is just one more thing around which she can create tension, cause a little push-and-pull.

“Working in ceramics is somewhat marginalizing,” she says. “But I like to play with that history of the craft and that tradition of clay as a decorative art knowing that some will never see past it.”

Her sculptures are technically complex, created by a long and laborious multistep process that starts with making the plaster molds from which she casts and fires fragile porcelain forms, later augmenting the surfaces with porcelain slip, sometimes using a small pin to form tiny dots of the liquid clay.

On the shelves of her studio at St. Edward’s, boxes hold collections of objects she uses for casts along with a few unfinished sculptures. She picks up a plaster mold she made from some kind of plastic packaging, perhaps one that held a light fixture. The mold bears the bulbous lines of the original package.

“This is just an ordinary thing, something we’d throw away without looking at. But look at the decorative detail on it,” she says. “We want to bring beauty to all things in our lives. It’s our nature.”

In a few weeks, Rubin will take part in the East Austin Studio Tour, invited to be a guest of Jennifer Chenoweth’s Fisterra Studio.

“Austin seems to have an open and active art environment,” she says. “And I like that. People have been very open to my work.”

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