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Chris Rubino is an artist
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Chris Rubino is an artist
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Chris Rubino is an artist
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"I put all my energy into it regardless of what it is."
1 July 2010

Chris Rubino is an artist

Interview by Kris McIntyre
Photography by Davi Russo

Kris McIntyre on Chris Rubino

It would be no exaggeration to say that Chris Rubino is one of New York’s most talented designer/illustrator/art directors, and nor would it be one to say he’s also one of the nicest. There’s nothing ‘too cool for school’ about Chris, just a burning desire to do more of what he loves.

Recent commissions have included the Distrikt Hotel (for which he created 8ft, back-lit collages for the hotel’s 32 floors, each portraying a different neighbourhood of New York), posters for the Sundance Film Festival, a commercial for Nike, a short film for Honda … Chris was in Sydney recently to continue work on a project with photographer Anthony (Ant) Geernaert. They are both extraordinarily talented individuals in their own right, but their collaboration is definitely a case of the sum being greater than the parts. We caught up with Chris and Ant over lunch.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KRIS MCINTYRE: So, what is this project you’re working on together about?

ANT: It’s a collaborative thing. There have been people doing light drawing and photographers taking night images, but our book is about two people coming together to create in a way that works for us. We didn’t want to do what has been done before or what is being done now with long exposures and light. It pains me to think of copying a trend or another artist. I used to do night photography a lot, but I stopped doing it because it starting feeling clichéd. It was like anyone who wanted to have an exhibition was doing night photography. Our book is going to be a selection of shots we take around the planet and I think the duration of the project gives it credibility.

CHRIS RUBINO: It’s long-exposure photography. The long exposure captures the full movement that I make in front on the camera, rather than just a fraction of it. Way back, I can’t even really remember when, I saw one of Gjon Mili’s photos of Picasso light drawing. For years, when I’d meet photographers, I’d try to talk about that image, but it wasn’t until Ant and I ran into each other in Hong Kong five years ago that the idea became a real pursuit. That’s when we started heading out at night.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand what you did until I had the privilege of seeing you in action.

CHRIS RUBINO: Yeah, it’s oddly physical. My body is a mess right now! We’ve been out shooting until 6 am for a few nights now and all that crawling around on the ground has made me sore.

ANT: It’s weird having a crew see that. Normally the only people who get to see that are me with my camera and the strangers that come around the corner to find Chris standing in the void drawing into thin night air! It’s really quite beautiful watching Chris creating these amazing letterforms when he writes. It’s about the word and the way it relates to the space around it.

CHRIS RUBINO: It’s nice that there’s no evidence left afterwards, other than the photographs.

Watching you I thought in some ways you were like a phantom graffiti artist.

CHRIS RUBINO: I don’t consider it to be graffiti, and I don’t think graffiti artists would either, but I know what you are saying. It’s like going through the motions, it’s like non-committal graffiti. The word reflects the context of where we are. That’s what has been nice about meeting up in different cities around the world to do this project. There’s also a story through the book and the writing, which maybe Ant hasn’t even fully noticed yet.

ANT: What’s the story?

CHRIS RUBINO: You’ve got to read the book (laughs)! Hopefully the book is going to be a reflection of illustration and photography and how they can come together.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

There will be some breaks in the book where you just see photographs or you just see drawings, and then it’s when they come together that you’ll see what they equal.

Drawing is so tangible, so when you don’t have anything physical to draw Chris Rubino on it’s quite different, you know?

Because you are drawing with a torch into thin air!

CHRIS RUBINO: I don’t have a great sense of dimension doing these. I can draw pretty straight lines on paper, but I can’t do that in thin air. If I drew like that on paper people would say, “What’s wrong with you?”

ANT: It’s kind of freaky how he does it. You also have to remember that he is drawing backwards. The word selection is interesting as well. With some locations you want it to be a little more antagonistic. The first time I visited Chris’ studio in New York, he’s got these posters he’s done with nice little slogans like ‘Old ideas happen in old buildings’. Is that right Chris?

CHRIS RUBINO: Yeah the phrase is placed over a drawing of the statehouse in Washington. Ironically, that print was bought by the Library of Congress.

ANT: Another one is that print you made for a guy that says, ‘It’s ok to hate things’. I love that because it’s good to remember you don’t have to be positive all the time.

Chris, what did you want to be when you were a boy? How did you end up doing what you are now?

CHRIS RUBINO: I wanted to be a librarian for a while and then I did work in a library for my first job. I worked there for three years and it was pretty cool. I was really into comic books as a teenager and into drawing as a kid too. I’ve been into art my whole life, my grandmother’s a painter and my uncle’s an illustrator and there’s just a lot of interest in art around my family.

How old are you now?


Did you have any lucky breaks?

CHRIS RUBINO: After the library? Well, I moved to New York after that. I was 21. I also went to art school as a teenager in Syracuse. You know where that is? It’s in the middle of nowhere – up near Canada. It’s like an Arctic environment and is a great place for an art school ‘cos it’s kind of depressing! So when I was 21 I got a job working for a music label doing album covers. I did that for a couple of years and I got a couple more jobs after that working with design agencies. Then, after three or four years, I was really miserable working in agencies so I quit my job and went freelance, but I didn’t get any work so I built a screen-printing studio and started doing that. I just started doing stuff. I don’t really know what the big breaks were. It’s hard to say. I got a huge illustration job for the New York Times. It was for a fashion section that didn’t exist at the time called ‘Thursday Styles’. It was a really big campaign that was all over the city, and agents started calling me. That’s how I got an agent. So I guess that was a lucky break. It was really fun. It was drawings of these huge shoes which were really bright colours and they were pretty graphic.

How did you get that job? Were you invited to pitch for it?

CHRIS RUBINO: I think the secret to success in almost any realm is the combination of three things; luck, nepotism and talent. The first two often being, maybe wrongfully, the most important. That first big job for the Times was definitely a result of those two things and I hope partially the third. I actually am still quite happy with the pieces I produced for that campaign. That job really opened up a world of commercial opportunity for me.

You’ve won an ADC Young Gun Award; your work has been exhibited in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and USA; and you’ve created designs for everyone from the New York Times to Banana Republic, the New York Public Theatre, bands like The Rapture, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Vetiver … You seem to be very comfortable balancing the corporate brief with your own creativity. How do you do that?

CHRIS RUBINO: It’s a challenge, but I have the same philosophy with everything I do and that’s to put all my energy into it regardless of what it is. You know, in the 21st century, if you are not into getting paid that’s ridiculous right? I just curated a magazine with fellow designer, Deanne Cheuk, in New York and the whole concept was about that – people who work both in the arts and commercially. The process is seamless … Say, maybe you are doing a drawing for a department store, but once the logo is off it, it could be in an exhibition. There’s a fine line between what’s art and what’s not. People are very visually sophisticated these days. Even as a consumer you tend to know what you love. You might not go to galleries, you might not buy art, but you know what you like. For me, having the two strands of work is a great way to travel the world too.

What do you think is design/illustration’s place in the world? You know, does it matter?

CHRIS RUBINO: Well I do believe that art matters.

You have to believe that things matter, regardless of your interests.

I’m very aware that everything as we know it will be all gone one day, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to use my time on this planet as I feel to be important, at least on a small level. I’ll leave the rest up to the sun and the solar system.

Do you think that over the years there’s been increased appreciation for what you do, as people have become more ‘visually sophisticated’? Putting aside the fact that you’ve probably gotten better at it over the years at the same time!

CHRIS RUBINO: I don’t know if there’s necessarily an increased appreciation as much as just an overall, general understanding of graphic art in culture. Specifically, in the past ten years I’ve noticed design being integrated more and more into our daily lives. The mystery of how a lot of design is created is also being rapidly erased and that allows for everyone to be involved in that language. I like that quite a bit, but I do want to find new ways to make images that still maintain some of that old mystery.

With your book project, how do you match a word to a place? Does the place come first or is the word the inspiration for the shot?

ANT: Place first. We have both shared favourite spots in our own hometowns. I used to shoot a lot of empty places that I felt had been occupied then abandoned. I would always imagine a person in that space, so I usually look at places that would be good to take a portrait in. I guess to start with I was looking for these haunting spaces, and Chris would respond with the words or shapes. Before this project even started I was interested in environments. I think it’s the same for Chris too because of the way he talks about cities and his hometown, New York City. Chris usually points out locations and we discuss if it will work on the spot, stop, shoot or move on. You have this intuition about the environments and when Chris is writing something, I don’t see anything other than a really soulful expression of that place in the moment of the shot.

CHRIS RUBINO: I think the really cool thing is that for me when I look at a picture I remember being in that spot. We’ve now been to hundreds of places in different cities … places that nobody visiting a city would eve I’ve been to places in this city that most Sydney-siders definitely haven’t been to.

Speaking of places where a lot of people haven’t been to, I understand that you love the desert?

CHRIS RUBINO: Yeah, I’ve been to so many deserts. Ant and I have also been to Joshua Tree [National Park, in southeastern California] together.

ANT: Yeah, we took a guy there who took his pants off and went insane!

CHRIS RUBINO: (Laughs) He’d literally never left New York City before. He flew to LA to meet us and we drove him up to Joshua Tree on the border of Arizona and California and he just lost it.

I guess he would never have seen a horizon before?

CHRIS RUBINO: I don’t know what happened, but we got out of the car to get some camera gear, turned around and he was totally naked and screaming! He just went mad into a primal scream meltdown – and he’s not like that at all.

ANT: He let me take a photo of him with just a rock covering his private parts and said, “I would never ever let anyone do this, so just photograph me now.”

Must be the magic of the desert. Where else have you been?

CHRIS RUBINO: The Sahara in Morocco, White Sands in New Mexico and the Mojave in California. I just really like how peaceful it is out there. It’s like the desert is so ‘dead’ but it’s so alive. I rented a house out in the desert a few years ago, I was amazed at night time by how insanely beautiful it is.

Do you think those times in the desert have informed your work at all … directly or indirectly?

CHRIS RUBINO: Directly, only slightly. I’ve created a few pieces specifically from my time in the desert, but more so, indirectly, of course, as much as any place I spend time. It heavily influences where my images come from. There is a beautiful language that occurs in the desert, it’s quite hard for me to explain, but I’ve never had a bad day there.

What else influences your work?

CHRIS RUBINO: New York has probably been my biggest influence, simply walking the streets, meeting wild people … So many things over my time here, it’s such a beast of a city. I have such huge love for it. Other than that, I guess reading has always been a big influence, books in general, more so than I realise sometimes. I’ve recently been working on a series that was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. This year I’ve started working on a film with a director named Jim Helton. He’s bringing some very interesting ideas into my studio and captures some of my process, the tools I use, the time it takes, etc. It’s interesting for me to see my work taking on new life, whether it’s in video, photos, a book or any other medium.

Collaboration is a hard thing to do and I think a lot of people fail at it. It seems that there is this great moment of love in the beginning and the ‘you’re great’ moments and then you settle into the normalising period where you start to realise your differences …

ANT: When you realise the other person has got no talent, and you can’t stand working together because they don’t understand you at all?

Well, there’s a kind of honeymoon period were you have to work out the practicalities of working together. What do you think makes a successful collaboration?

ANT: The way I studied was to find the most original idea you could and then how to make it work. So if you did a beautiful photo that someone else had already done, you’d get an F, which is pretty harsh, but you’d learn to do it a better, more original way.

Where did you study?

ANT: London College of Printing. So it was pretty easy for me to collaborate with art directors from the start. One of the things I really enjoy about collaboration – with Chris and other people – is that I just really want to learn from other people. So I can kind of be at the mercy of someone else and or just do my own thing. Anyone can easily do both. I have this theory, if you talk too much in conversation, you are repeating your thoughts, and often repeating yourself. If you take the time to listen to someone interesting, you will learn so much more. I think it’s important to apply this to my working practice. I guess it’s one element of collaboration.

What have you learnt from Chris?

ANT: I’ve learnt a lot. Just hanging out and talking to him is inspiring. I’ve learnt that his career is soaring and that mine has plateaued and is going down! I think what I’ve learnt from Chris – especially as someone who has this great stamina to go out and do this all night long – I don’t know if I even have a tangible way to describe it in words, but I just feel his passion.

CHRIS RUBINO: That’s cool. I like that Ant hates doing anything that is predictable or obvious. That’s a really exciting way for me to work. A lot of the time we are just joking around, but he always pushes for a unique image. He doesn’t really like photography, cameras or focus, but I think he does really like making images and he’s found a way to just make it work. He doesn’t get caught up in the technical stuff ‘cos he just knows how to do it. The other thing is, most days I’m in a studio on my own all day, so to be with someone who can do things that I don’t is cool.

Ant knows how to make really beautiful photographs, and I don’t know how to do that.

Have you ever done a reverse thing where you (Chris) take the photo and you (Ant) do the drawing?

CHRIS RUBINO: (Laughs) I was thinking that we should do an email in which we each try to create an image that the other would usually make.

I could take a really boring photo and Ant could write something snarky and predictable on top of a drawing, ha!

As I mentioned I’m working with a filmmaker right now and that’s another collaboration where I don’t know how to do what the other person is doing. I think, with any collaboration you have to remember how to stay open-minded, because if you dictate everything it won’t work. Like if I try to direct that movie he’s not going to want to work with me. It’s also a great way to keep yourself excited about your work because then you have someone else telling you how awesome you are all the time! Sometimes you need that, rather than just being in the bubble waiting until it’s out there in the world.

So how do you go about planning a project? Do you just turn up and see what happens?

ANT: I come across a lot of people who talk a lot about doing projects together but nothing ever happens … even to the point where we’ve organised something and they don’t turn up because they had a big night the night before. If someone is going to turn up and make it happen from the start then that’s great. So when you are planning a project, I guess you just have to make it as big as possible. When Chris and I first started talking about working together we didn’t even have a point of reference. Then Chris said, why don’t we just meet at the same time as a mutual friend was holding an exhibition in LA. I think the way we went about it was, okay, let’s just do this thing. At the time I was super, super busy with other work that was pretty good and it seemed impossible for me to do this – like, how can I make this insanity of my work even more difficult for myself, but I booked two flights – one was to Taipei to help out on another exhibition, fly back to Sydney for the weekend and then onto LA. When I got back from Taipei, my wife asked if I wanted to have a baby so we made a baby that weekend and I also bought an Alfa Romeo on impulse! I landed in LA and we just started. Initially we were taking photos with other people around, but then we realised we had to get away. I mean we don’t even talk much when we are working together.

How many cities have you been to for this project?

ANT: Four – New York, Los Angeles, London, Sydney and we’re doing Hong Kong next.

CHRIS RUBINO: The other cool thing about this is that we live nowhere near each other. I mean it takes 22 hours for me to get here, so a big part of this project was how are we going to make this happen?

ANT: The last time I went to meet Chris I used frequent flyer points and it was a last minute thing. The only flights available were via London so I went on a 38-hour trip. When I land, even if it’s the morning, Chris always hands me a 40oz malt beer that almost blows my head off. What was it called, a ‘hurricane’?

CHRIS RUBINO: Yeah, I like having a coffee and watching him drink those.

ANT: That’s the thing, peer pressure will get me every time.

Do you think you have to be same-same-but-different for a collaboration to work? When you work with someone do you think you have to have enough in common to be on the same page but also have enough differences to bring another dimension to your work without conflict?

CHRIS RUBINO: It depends on how you are working. With some projects you don’t even need to see each other. I think you probably wouldn’t even think about working with another person if you didn’t like their aesthetic.

ANT: Yeah, that’s the thing, if you like the other person’s work then you respect them and you can let them do what they need to do.

CHRIS RUBINO: (Laughs) If he was shooting ads with tacos surfing on waves I probably would have never wanted to do this, but I really liked his photography when I saw it.

If you could meet anyone in the world who would it be?

CHRIS RUBINO: Lawrence Weiner. He’s a super-famous typography artist who lives in New York.

And what would you ask him?

CHRIS RUBINO: How he gets so many beautiful women to work in his studio! No seriously, that’s a really good question. I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore, but I would definitely smoke with that guy. I think I would probably just ask him where the confidence comes from to do what he does. His work is so intangible that you would never guess he could make a career out of it. His last exhibition I asked someone who works in the gallery how you buy his work – because it doesn’t look like you can buy it – and she explained with a big smile because it’s almost like a big joke. But he takes his work very seriously. I think

it’s amazing when you can just do exactly what you want to do and convince the world that it’s noteworthy.

He’s amazing. He’s not my favourite artist, but he’s my favourite art personality.

Who is your favourite artist?

CHRIS RUBINO: I don’t think I have a single favourite artist. Though, I’ve met some of my favourite artists. I mean, some of my friends … I just enjoy seeing what they make, but they are not blue-chip famous. I met Frank Miller who created Sin City and that was awesome because I loved comics so much as a kid. He came to my exhibition last year – and he looks like a comic book character. When I was younger, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol … Cezanne for his colour, Bruno Munari. He had the career I would like to have the most because he’s got the perfect balance of public/commercial work and fine art. I’m proud to be a commercial artist. I want my work to be out there in the world. I’d rather design a label for a bottle of beer than a painting for one person. Like this hotel project I’ve just completed (Distrikt in New York) which included a mural on every floor, the restaurant and in the guest rooms. It’s cool to know that people are going to stay there and lie in their bed and be looking at my work. That’s why I like screen-printing. You can make 100 and pass them out but they still have an intrinsic value because of the craft that went into creating them.

How do you deal with the pressure to keep being creative, to keep coming up with something great and original?

CHRIS RUBINO: Sketchbooks. Always, always, always have one, you’ll never run out of ideas.

Is your approach conceptually driven, like do you spend a lot of time thinking about the idea on an intellectual level, or do you generally run with where you’re at on the day?

CHRIS RUBINO: Usually a small idea starts it off then sometimes keeps getting built on. For a long time everything seemed to be produced as one-offs, posters, drawings. However for the past few years the work is developing in groups and yes under a more singular concept. For example, I’m finding it more interesting to mix objects along with the flat two-dimensional work.

Are there any common characteristics across everything you do?

CHRIS RUBINO: That is a really great question, and one that I think about quite often. It’s interesting for me to think back five years, 10 years, 20 years and see what led me to this point and I think it’s cool to realise what I was enjoying at age 15 and how that expresses itself today.

I don’t necessarily feel like there is a consistent visual style but I might not even be the right person to see this, I do hope though that the work appears to come from a similar thinking.

What work or pieces are you most proud of? What do you think has been your best work?

CHRIS RUBINO: I’m proud of most all of my screenprinting work specifically, because I know how intensive it’s been to create. Most recently I’m quite proud of that hotel project I just completed with 31 floors of lightbox murals (during which these photographs were taken), and I’m about to release a series of short films and a book of paintings both titled Love Kills Demons. I hope to be very proud of this work.

How much of your identity is tied up with being Chris Rubino ‘Art Director’ or Chris Rubino ‘Designer’? I guess what I’m getting at here is could you ever see yourself doing something else? Could other people?

CHRIS RUBINO: I just enjoy making things, every day, whether that’s taking photos, drawing, printing … The longer I do this, the more I want to produce. I’ve spent almost 10 years now working out of my own studio and I can see how it’s become more and more of a workshop for evolving ideas. I can only hope to be old surrounded by chaos with a few successes mixed in with the piles of failures.

Kris McIntyre

Photography by Davi Russo

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