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.Read More
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