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LACMA Explores the Allure of Matter Ocula Report LACMA Explores the Allure of Matter 14 Jun 2019 : Jareh Das for Ocula

The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (2 June 2019–5 January 2020) is an inter-generational show of 21 Chinese artists working from the 1980s to the present, including Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Lin Tianmiao, Song Dong, He Xiangyu, Yin Xiuzhen, and Ma Qiusha.Staged on Level 2 of LACMA's Renzo...

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Thomas J Price: Reframing Classical Sculpture Ocula Conversation Thomas J Price: Reframing Classical Sculpture

When the London-born artist Thomas J Price graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chelsea College of Arts in 2004, the school's college art prize was by no means his most notable accomplishment as an emerging artist. In 2001, Price presented his much-talked-about work Licked, a daring performance, later profiled on the BBC 4 television...

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Art Basel Lowdown: Shows to See Ocula Report Art Basel Lowdown: Shows to See 6 Jun 2019 : Tessa Moldan for Ocula

To coincide with Art Basel 2019, which opens to the public from 13 to 16 June, galleries and institutions across the city are presenting a range of stellar exhibitions. From Rebecca Horn at Museum Tinguely to Geumhyung Jeong at Kunsthalle Basel, here is a selection of what to see.William Kentridge, Dead Remus (2014–2016). Charcoal on found ledger...

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Sterling Ruby

b. 1972, Germany

Born in 1972 on an American Air Force base in Bitburg, Germany to a Dutch mother and American father, artist Sterling Ruby was always destined to have a unique worldview. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and New Freedom, Pennsylvania, while also spending time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The latter, known for its Amish population, proved influential in informing a craft aesthetic in his practice. From those beginnings, today he stands as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.

Ruby attended The Pennsylvania School of Art & Design from 1992 to 1996. However, it was after graduating in 2002 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that Ruby began to develop a dense, layered practice and form a unique visual repertoire. Having worked for the Video Data Bank at the institute, he came into contact with the writings of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida and studied the early videos of artists Paul McCarthy and Bruce Nauman. Another influence is Mike Kelley, whom Ruby worked for as a teaching assistant after completing the Master of Fine Arts program at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (where he moved in 2003). Today, Ruby works from a vast studio compound in Los Angeles, creating commissioned projects of mammoth proportions for international museums and gallery exhibitions with his studio team. His work is held in prestigious public collections such as the Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; MoMA, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; MoCA, North Miami; MCA Chicago; MoCA, Los Angeles; LACMA, Los Angeles; and SFMOMA, San Francisco. 

Ruby represents a generation of Los Angeles-based artists (along with figures like Wade Guyton, Nate Lowman and Jason Yates) who have set out to examine the legacy of Minimalism and its aftereffects via painting. Unpacking the legacies of predecessors such as Mark Rothko and Morris Louis, these artists have confronted the opposition between abstraction and formalism, asserting a refusal of these parameters. Painting however, is but one element in Ruby’s creative artillery.

Early, lesser-known presentations of his work at Foxy Production in New York signified the artist’s interest in spatial intervention. His 2007 solo show Superoverpass featured a commanding, singular, white, bridge-shaped sculpture that filled the main gallery space. Viewers were forced to negotiate around and under it, drawing attention to its unexpectedly defaced surface, which was scrawled with graffiti. In this way, Ruby assaulted the foundation and expectations surrounding Minimalist traditions. In 2009, his Foxy Production show The Masturbators included a multi-channel video installation focused on the male figure, using porn stars in provocative sexual acts to investigate the constructions of masculinity.

To categorise his diverse, ever-evolving practice to a specific medium, style or topic would be to misrepresent it. At its centre, his accumulative oeuvre to date has aimed to overwhelm and engage his audiences in a variety of means via objects, surfaces and colour. Traversing one media and technique to the next, he is an artist interested in extremes and thrives on the unpredictable. Today, he is most recognised for his eclectic output ranging from poured polyurethane sculptures and drawings made with nail polish, to richly glazed ceramics, large-scale spray-painted canvases, textiles, collages and videos. As the artist himself states, ‘I think of it [my practice] in terms of space, depth, punctuation of colour’. 

In addition to his investigation of materiality, Ruby’s practice demonstrates a desire for philosophical engagement. Aiming to analyse physical and mental boundaries and their abilities to divide, protect and isolate, Ruby’s output is characterised by an attention-grabbing, jarring reflection of reality. Through such polymorphous creativity and indistinction, a world of social stereotypes and visual tropes are enlivened, synthesising dual readings and meaning. Recurring references to national identity and power structures arise emerge in the ambiguity of his familiar yet unfamiliar forms. 

Perhaps Supermax, his 2008 exhibition at MoCA, Los Angeles best exemplified Ruby’s hybrid approaches for audiences. The title of the show referred to the special units of American maximum security prisons where prisoners in solitary confinement are on lockdown for up to 23 hours a day. At once irresistible and grotesque, decorative and critical, his sculptural intervention included enormous phallic polyurethane stalagmites exuding raw expressionistic force. These luscious oozing towers, oscillating between frozen and morph-like states, evinced notions of transience and transference. Juxtaposed against abstract aerosol paintings, collages, soft sculptures in the form of blood or teardrops, and geometric sculptures made of brass, this collective ensemble of media enlivened physical and psychological confinement. Supermax was an important departure from the artist’s earlier engagement with Minimalist art. Such interdisciplinary integration has since become the hallmark of his career.

His ongoing interest in repurposing found materials sustains Ruby’s anarchistic desire to undermine power systems. In his 2010 show 2TRAPS at Pace Gallery in New York, Ruby’s repurposed LA Police Department bus (once used to ferry inmates to and from Californian prisons) was outfitted with solitary confinement cages, speakers and exterior security doors. For a 2016 exhibition at Gagosian in Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, Ruby deployed parts of deaccessioned American submarines, giving further weight to the association of such remnants. These reanimated, violently deconstructed fragments—think hulking engine parts, steel pipes and support structures—simultaneously resembled balanced modernist sculptures. Here, the high and low were successfully blended.

Ruby’s recurring interest in the American flag and its constellation of stars also has potent connotations. Symbolising a ‘supernation’, the stars also represent the depths of the unknown, of outer space, astrology, and ancient mythology. In 2014, Ruby explored a nationalistic thread throughout his work in his Flags series, consisting of large-scale wall hangings resembling the American flag. In 2012, Ruby presented the exhibition Soft Work at the Geneva Contemporary Art Center, which later travelled to FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in Reims, France; Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. The exhibition centred around soft sculpture made from colourful fabric. Various cushioned forms were sewn together and arranged akin to a children’s playroom. However, upon closer inspection, recognisable patterns including the American flag, menacing vampire-like fangs with blood droplets and intestinal-like sausages gave the forms a disconcerting, aggressive edge.

Objects of comfort were also transformed in Ruby’s investigation into the traditions of quilt-making with his bleach collage pieces created in 2011. Repurposing fabric scraps and denim into patchwork collages, these works recall the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Mike Kelley, as well as Ruby’s interest in disciplines such as craft and sewing, not considered part of the contemporary art practice.

As Ruby continues to develop his ambitious artistic output, so too, he consistently challenges the perception of his practice. Surprising audiences with each project, today the question to pose is not, ‘who is Sterling Ruby?’, but rather, what will he do next?

Rachael Vance | Ocula | 2017
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Featured Artworks

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WIDW. SET FIRE by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyWIDW. SET FIRE, 2019 Acrylic, oil, elastic, cardboard on canvas
320 x 243.8 x 5.1 cm
Xavier Hufkens
WIDW. BRASSICA. by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyWIDW. BRASSICA., 2018 Acrylic, oil, and cardboard on canvas
40.6 x 30.5 cm
Taka Ishii Gallery
WIDW. WILDFIRE. by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyWIDW. WILDFIRE., 2018 Acrylic, oil, elastic, cardboard, and treated fabric on canvas
213.4 x 121.9 x 5.1 cm
Xavier Hufkens
DRFTRS (6778) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyDRFTRS (6778), 2018 collage, paint and glue on paper
68.9 x 110.2 cm
Xavier Hufkens
DRFTRS (6666) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyDRFTRS (6666) collage, paint and glue on paper
28.6 x 22.2 cm
Xavier Hufkens
WIDW. RED RIFT. by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyWIDW. RED RIFT., 2018 Acrylic, oil, cardboard, and treated fabric on canvas
320 x 243.8 x 5.1 cm
Xavier Hufkens
DRFTRS (6758) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyDRFTRS (6758), 2018 collage, coloured pencil and glue on paper
27.9 x 21.6 cm
Xavier Hufkens
SKULL (6385) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubySKULL (6385), 2018 Resin, urethane, fibreglass, aluminium, and yarn
94 x 76.2 x 137.2 cm
Sprüth Magers

Current & Recent Exhibitions

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Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, An Exhibition For Notre-Dame at Gagosian, New York
Open Now
11–27 June 2019 Group Exhibition An Exhibition For Notre-Dame Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York
Contemporary art exhibition, Sterling Ruby, DAMNATION at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
13 February–23 March 2019 Sterling Ruby DAMNATION Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Tables, Carpets & Dead Flowers at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich
17 November–21 December 2018 Group Exhibition Tables, Carpets & Dead Flowers Hauser & Wirth, Zürich

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In Ocula Magazine

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Gwangju Biennale: Burning Down The House Ocula Report Gwangju Biennale: Burning Down The House 4 Oct 2014 : Jeesun Park for Ocula

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In Related Press

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Interview: Sterling Ruby Related Press Interview: Sterling Ruby Kaleidoscope : 27 September 2016

Piero Golia: When I arrived in LA, you were already 'Sterling.' So you should tell me the beginning of the story, the piece that I’m missing, and then we can start the conversation.Sterling Ruby: Well, my family moved around a lot in my early childhood, but we finally wound up in Pennsylvania when I was about eight. By 1994, I had...

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Interview: on the road with the US artist Sterling Ruby Related Press Interview: on the road with the US artist Sterling Ruby Financial Times : 27 August 2016

Ruby was only three years out of art school when he caught the international art world's attention with a densely hung exhibition called SUPERMAX 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Over the past decade there has been no let-up in the furious pace and ambitious scale of his production: dripping red urethane stalagmites; stuffed...

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The weird, wondrous, and worldly art visions of LA Related Press The weird, wondrous, and worldly art visions of LA Hyperallergic : 22 August 2016

What does it mean to be an LA artist? This is the question that curators Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker came up against when organizing the Hammer Museum’s third Los Angeles Biennial, Made in LA 2016. Instead of trying to determine a decisive set of regional characteristics, they hewed closely to the show’s title, the only requirement...

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'Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only' at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles Related Press 'Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only' at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles Art Agenda : 26 July 2016

In LA, everyone’s Marlon Brando’s gardener. Cruising through a city sold and resold as a promised land, we’ve nothing to guide us but our passions for prosperity, for fame, for space, for spirit. All of us here somehow find a place in the end, even if it’s only as workers in others’ gardens, Edens owned by those that...

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In Related Video

Sterling Ruby in conversation with Anders Kold Related Video & Audio Sterling Ruby in conversation with Anders Kold Xavier Hufkens : 6 November 2018

Ruby's DRFTRS and WIDW series are two ever-evolving bodies of work that bear witness to the artist's intense relationship with materials and his interest in issues such as sociocultural evolution, popular culture, and violence.

Sterling Ruby in conversation with Dirk Snauwaert Related Video & Audio Sterling Ruby in conversation with Dirk Snauwaert Xavier Hufkens : 7 September 2015

Sterling Ruby talks with Dirk Snauwaert, artistic director of WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, on the occasion of his exhibitions ECLPSE and SCALES at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.


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