Suppose you could walk directly through people's homes. You'd just stroll in a straight line, and melt through walls and doorways, like a ghost, and see whatever's inside. As you pass, you'd notice all the colors, windows, design and décor — the architecture and personal touches of each building. And the owners are home, of course. Some are teen-agers playing video games in a basement. Others are kids doing homework and fiddling with their cell phones. One is a hirsute guy enjoying a massage in his living room.
That's the fantasy that Jon Rubin explores in "HERETHEREHERE," a video installation at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. In the video, Rubin "walks" from his house to the PCA building, presumably through Point Breeze. But he walks in a direct line, shortcutting through drawing rooms and kitchens and dens.
Because of projects like this, PCA has named Rubin "Artist of the Year," a distinction that praises not only the man but his vision. PCA has named many Artists of the Year, but Rubin should give Pittsburgh pause. He is not a high-concept craftsman working in secret. He is not a creator of capital-P Public Art. Rubin's creations are woven into the fabric of the city. His work is immediate, intimate and familiar. Rubin has serious intentions and a playful spirit. PCA has chosen very well.
Even if you don't know who Rubin is, you likely know his collaborations. An assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Rubin helped spearhead The Waffle Shop (multimedia diner), The Conflict Kitchen (kiosk selling cuisine of countries at odds with the U.S., like Afghanistan), The Museum of Modern Failure (museum, with at-cost coffee), Whatever It Takes (innovative Steelers exhibit) and many other elaborate community projects. He is a professor who makes other professors seem lazy and disaffected.
This is why Rubin's latest series, now on display at PCA, does not quite live up to expectations.
"HERETHEREHERE" is a marvelous piece, 40 minutes of silent movement through other people's private existence — literally, a slice of life. The 2011 video represents everything Rubin has become in Pittsburgh, not only an artist and educator, but a person interested in people. The characters in his video are posed, but they actually live in these homes, and what they're doing represents actual daily rituals. Like The Waffle Shop, "HERETHEREHERE" has a fun, populist streak.
But Rubin's other Artist of the Year-show works are not so fun or populist. "October 2, 2004" is a video made in a house. The handheld camera wanders the corridors and rooms, and every few minutes a giant bubble emerges from the floor. This is the kind of bubble you'd blow in the backyard as a kid, except that it magically appears from the floorboards and walls. There is no plastic ring, no fan, not even a hand to help create it. This qualifies as a special effect, and you could wonder how he did it. But for many viewers, that will be the extent of it.
Even less engaging is "I'm Not Me," a video that shows young people sitting in a room. The room is a disaster, with moldering furniture, spray-painted walls, and odd trinkets lying everywhere. The characters look like teen-agers, and their skin is painted silver. They bob their heads, as if to a beat, but they look bored and uncommitted. "I'm Not Me" loops without incident for 10 minutes.
Though these two videos were completed in 2010, both feel as though they come from an earlier phase of the artist's development. Rubin grew up in Philadelphia and lived for many years in San Francisco, and his journey seems long and organic. These videos feel more indulgent and abstract, interested in "place" but not connected to an actual location or culture. His artist's statement says as much: These works explore "the psychological complexity of domestic life."
These are brainy pursuits. You can't touch or feel "domestic life." What makes other Rubin collaborations so rich is their tactile nature. You can touch and feel them. Sometimes, you can even taste them.
There's nothing wrong with Rubin's show, not even the line-drawing of a naked man on a weight machine, a lonely framed picture in an otherwise empty room. But such works seem coy and oblique for an artist who is now so invested in his adopted city. They behave like experiments, youthful forays into personal expression. The work might surprise your average Waffle Shop patron. These days, Rubin's reputation precedes him; if this series does not merit "Artwork of the Year," Rubin still earns his title. He's been earning it for some time now.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: JON RUBIN continues through Jan. 22. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or pittsburgharts.org.