Tammie Rubin's "Before I Knew You, I Missed You" offers variations on the cone. Her sculptures are small, standing only a few inches high at their largest, but they are collected in families spread over shelves so their small stature is made up for with quantity and presence. The sculptures are mostly porcelain, though one grouping, Illinois Central, is made from glass beakers. Always & Forever (Forever Ever Ever) 2 is more typically ambiguous. Nineteen porcelain cones are spread, pointed ends up. Some of the ends are sharp as witches' hats; others are rounded. Some cones are thin and tall; others are squat. I mentioned "families" earlier, which is appropriate, as the cones are bunched together like they're gathered for a portrait. Each cone is decorated with its own pattern of multicolored polyps and lines. A few of the cones, not only in Always & Forever (Forever Ever Ever) 2, but also in the other pieces in the series, Always & Forever (Forever Ever Ever) 1 and 3, are decorated with maps of the United States. The map represented on a cone in Always & Forever (Forever Ever Ever) 1 is made from countless daubs of white like points of light seen from a satellite, except for the southeastern United States, which is left blank so only the blue pigment beneath can be seen.
The maps speak to Rubin's interest in the Great Migration, the historic resettlement of African-Americans from the Deep South into northern cities in the early to mid-20th century. The Great Migration theme seems relevant to the maps, but it is essential given the most striking detail, which I have saved until now: Each porcelain cone has been given two holes, reminiscent of eyes. The result is a dramatic and ominous reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Rubin explains that it was the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation – which idealized the Klan as heroes rescuing the South from rampant, violent freedmen – that cemented the robe and pointed mask as inseparable from the Klan itself. The uniform, she says, which was created by costume designers for the film, would eventually come to represent some of the ugliest, most shameful, most pathetic aspects of America's post-Civil War history.
While it may be possible to see other things in Rubin's work (some of the show's literature mentioned traffic cones as an option), it would seem dense to stray too far from the obvious racial implications. So perhaps one can read traffic cones and race, or science and race, or cartography and race. I struggle to pin down an interpretation, beyond visual interest, for the color and texture applied to each figure (a more useful term here than "cone"), though I am quite pleased with the contrast between Klan uniforms and party hats.
Rubin's figures are not only menacing. My party hat reference should speak to that. Perhaps if the figures were larger, they might seem more violent, more threatening. As they are, the figures are eye-catching and detailed enough that one is drawn in rather than repelled. The Klan may be evident, but the figures also speak to the African-American experience, so that a more compassionate, gentle, and persevering story begins to unfold. One need not see Rubin's figures as enemies. They are too sympathetic for that. It is significant, then, that they are placed at eye-level, as one way or another, we are asked to look directly into them, and they can look right back.
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