Since its patented use in the year 1810 by Peter Durand, the ‘Tin can’ has become a quiet but indispensable part of life, cultures and businesses around the globe. Originally invented to provide well preserved and durable food storage for sailors in the British Royal Navy, the cylindrical metal profile of the tin can continues to be a viable solution for industries and products as diverse as food and beverage, paints and varnishes, cosmetics and medical products. Worth several billion pounds, the canning industry, and the simple but robust format of ‘Tin cans’ provide food security, aid, flavorful variety in all seasons of the year, cost effective storage and distribution, and infinitely recyclable packaging.
To return to the ‘Tin can’ itself–what is it made of? The modern Tin can is actually made of a material known as Tinplate–a sheet of steel, which has been rolled and thinly coated with Tin. The role that Tin plays here is crucial–a lightweight but highly resilient metal, unlike steel, Tin is not affected by the acids in food, so a layer of tin coated on steel sheets protects the can from corrosion. Over the years, Tin has become so synonymous with such protective vessels, that even other varieties of cans, made solely with materials such as Aluminium, or steel without tin coating, are commonly known as Tin cans. Cans made of Aluminium, while lighter and more malleable, tend to interact more readily with chemical agents, making them less widely applicable when comprised to the ubiquitous tin can.
From the perspective of artists and designers, this universally seen and used, stackable, cost effective and easily recycled object offers an opportunity. The fact that Tin cans remain in the background, quite under-appreciated in our daily lives, makes their transformation and re-use by creatives even more attractive and essential.
One such transformation is seen in the work of New York based artist Allan Rubin.
His Canon collection of artists’ self portraits are three-dimensional sculptures crafted with recycled cans. By turning to tin cans as a compact and versatile artistic medium, Allan has exposed the potential of every unique can shape, size, individual part and metal texture. The resulting sculptures present a marvelous likeness to the original canvas portraits they are inspired by, while adding a whole new dimension to their experience. Despite the disposable nature of the cans themselves, the sculptures are long lasting, since the use of oil paint on the tin cans helps them age well if prepared properly.
We recently interviewed Allan about his work, his exploration in metal mediums for nearly five decades, and his ‘Canon’ series, which numbers 115 and counting.
Q: What motivated you to work with tin and other metal cans as your artistic medium?
A: Twenty years ago I was seeking a permanent medium with which to make small paintings similar to the large oil on canvas and on branch construction landscapes I was making. I tried bending metal left behind by a chicken farmer, whose coops we had converted to art studios, and painting it with oil. I then abandoned this practice until five years ago when a local gallery called for submissions for artworks no larger than six inches in any dimension. I noticed an empty six inch metal tomato can and realized I could bend it to create a substrate for painted portraits such as those of family and friends. I understood that I needed a more universal image however, and settled upon the Canon as a celebration of my artist heroes.
I borrowed painted self portraits of famous and lesser known artist masters and remade them as painted sculptures. This turned out to be a breakthrough–this new work was smaller, more exciting for me and more popular with my audience. I have also made a point of seeking artists of varied cultures and women artists who were not always included in the accepted art canon. One of the fun parts of this experience is how friends and local restaurants delight in contributing used cans toward the project, in a collaboration of sorts. There is no danger, even in the pandemic, of running short of supply.
Q: What is most appealing about working with the tin cans and what is most challenging?
A: The most appealing aspect of the cans is that they are readily recognizable as a common household object so their transformation into artwork amazes the viewer in the same way that my mind is excited as an artist. The fact that they remain visible as cans while disappearing into the trompe l’oeil effect when painted further heightens the magic.
I am equally moved by using them as a recycled material in an environmental statement. The parts of the cans lend themselves to the process in many ways. Whole, they make good shapes for heads and as just the cylinders, for arms. Cut open and flattened, they can be shaped into hands and hair. Lids can be readily bent into noses and ears. The biggest challenge is to make the resistant metal bend to my desire to mimic the shapes and contours of an original self portrait to recreate a painted sculpture.What have you learned about tincans since starting this series, which has surprised you?
A: What I’ve learned about the cans and has surprised me is how forgiving the metal is when manipulated, and also how forgiving the viewer can be when judging the realism, the verisimilitude and life I have tried to translate into the portraits. The raw cans have hard, sharp edges and screws poking up, but the oil paint physically and visually smoothes that all over, which delights me and the viewer in encounters with the finished pieces. I hope I can someday manage to place the Canon within a public institution, perhaps in a long hallway, as an educational installation about artists’ self images and how they relate to each other in history and in space.