Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents -

Ster­ling Ruby is one of the most in­trigu­ing artists to emerge this cen­tury

The united states eats it­self—or at least that’s what it looks like. In­testines of star-span­gled fab­ric dan­gle from the ceil­ing of a large white room and drape over gi­ant plush pros­trate hu­manoid fig­ures. Fab­ric fangs on the walls drip blood. The space looks like the ware­house of a creepy amuse­ment park. Soft Work, an in­stal­la­tion at June’s Art Basel in Switzer­land, in­vites play and in­ter­ac­tion. But af­ter a lit­tle time, a feel­ing of unease creeps over the viewer. The in­stal­la­tion be­gins to feel like a fun fair un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs, the hun­gry vam­piric smiles ready to con­sume us.

The cre­ator’s name reads like a pseu­do­nym and it’s ev­ery­where at the mo­ment. Ster­ling Ruby has made ev­ery next-big-thing list of the past few years. The 42-year-old artist, who was born on a US army base in Ger­many, has climbed a lad­der of top-notch gal­leries as his star has risen, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les­based Marc Foxx, Man­hat­tan’s Metro Pic­tures, Pace Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, and now Gagosian, whose Hong Kong branch is stag­ing a solo show of his spray paint­ings, Vivids, un­til Oc­to­ber 25.

Ruby, who is based in Los An­ge­les, has seen the value of his work sky­rocket since he sold his first piece not much more than a decade ago for US$500. By 2008, around the time The­newyork­times’ Roberta Smith dubbed him “one of the most in­ter­est­ing artists to emerge in this cen­tury,” his spray paint­ings were fetch­ing US$35,000 to US$45,000. They now com­mand more than US$600,000 at auc­tion, and his pa­trons in­clude some of the world’s most prom­i­nent col­lec­tors.

The artis­tic poly­math, of­ten pho­tographed with a ban­dana cov­er­ing his long blond hair, re­sem­bles a West Coast skater­turned-red­neck biker. In the past few years, Ruby has been ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent medi­ums to cre­ate an an­ar­chic hy­brid of forms fused with au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, the so­cial and the po­lit­i­cal. His aes­thetic foun­da­tion is ur­ban sub­cul­tures—graf­fiti, punk, hip-hop, gangs. There’s a grit­ti­ness to his work—the angst of punk rock meets an LA sen­si­bil­ity as he chron­i­cles an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, vi­o­lence and his gen­er­a­tion’s un­rest and anx­i­ety.

In Soft Work’s patch­work of bleached, dyed and stitched fab­ric, the artist com­ments on fem­i­nism, eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism and the pe­nal sys­tem. Ruby’s re­cur­ring use of tex­tiles and patch­work is rooted in his past. “They were one of my early vi­su­als, be­cause we lived so close to Lan­caster [Penn­syl­va­nia] and I had a lot of friends who were Amish. I saw quilts be­fore I saw any sort of pop art or geo­met­ric art,” he ex­plained in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year.

Ruby, formerly a pro­fes­sional skate­boarder, was drawn to art through mu­sic—“record al­bums, zines and cloth­ing,” he says. “The sec­ond Amer­i­can gen­er­a­tion of punk mu­sic dur­ing the ’80s was very graphic, and the at­ti­tude and be­hav­iour mir­rored this aes­thetic. It was the first time that I had recog­nised a pathol­ogy and power through vi­su­als and, while this seems pretty easy to trace through­out all of art his­tory, it was a rev­e­la­tory mo­ment for me. As a youth, this is only what I had ac­cess to; I did not come to the high art

of the Re­nais­sance, Man­ner­ism, con­struc­tivism, mod­ernism or even con­tem­po­rary pe­ri­ods un­til much later. But when I did, I had al­ready recog­nised the link through a dif­fer­ent kind of vis­ual cul­ture.”

Af­ter high school and an as­sort­ment of odd jobs, Ruby en­rolled in 2000 at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, where he re­ceived a fine ground­ing in post­mod­ernism. Later, while in the Mas­ter of Fine Arts pro­gramme at Pasadena’s Art Cen­ter Col­lege of De­sign, he served as renowned artist Mike Kel­ley’s teach­ing as­sis­tant for two years. Although he didn’t grad­u­ate from the col­lege— the com­mit­tee was split on his fi­nal project—the school granted his MFA years later, af­ter Ruby had be­come one of the most prom­i­nent LA artists of his gen­er­a­tion.

Ruby’s in­stal­la­tions and sculp­tures over­whelm the viewer with colour, size and tex­ture as he un­leashes an unashamed ex­plo­ration of for­mal­ism in his work. “I love so much art that is just for­mal. I have of­ten thought that for­mal­ism, from a mod­ernist per­spec­tive, is like the re­cur­ring cure for my gen­er­a­tion’s over­loaded post­mod­ernist up­bring­ing. There is an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of younger artists now who just make for­mal work and I think that I am en­joy­ing this cy­cle for the mo­ment.”

At times, his work feels like it’s try­ing to un­tan­gle and free it­self from the post­mod­ern jum­ble of the­o­ries, his­to­ries and ideas thrust upon his gen­er­a­tion. But the colour­ful, tex­tu­ral and play­ful ve­neer of Ruby’s works masks some­thing more sin­is­ter and rot­ting, like the films of David Lynch or Tim Bur­ton. Af­ter spend­ing time in his in­stal­la­tions, or star­ing at his col­lages and paint­ings, a darker un­der­cur­rent is felt. His solo show Su­per­max 2008 at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Los An­ge­les is a good ex­am­ple; it refers to max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prisons where in­mates are kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment.

Ruby de­scribes Su­per­max 2008 as “the clos­est thing I can imag­ine to hell.” He says it was an ex­plo­ration of Amer­ica’s di­choto­mous par­a­digm of lib­er­a­tion and re­pres­sion, which he de­scribes as “fraught with hypocrisy… I have al­ways felt like Amer­ica rev­els in in­de­cency while pro­ject­ing a moral au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism… I try to re­flect this in my work by us­ing cul­tural top­ics such as hip-hop,

be­cause it re­flects an em­braced bro­ken pathol­ogy. It is a real-life cul­tural case sce­nario that is con­tem­po­rary.” The in­stal­la­tion was com­prised of large geo­met­ric slabs of white Formica, their min­i­mal­ist pu­rity vi­o­lated with smudges or neon graf­fiti; red polyurethane sta­lag­mites that looked like poured vis­cous red liq­uid; tex­tile blood drops ooz­ing from win­dows; and spray paint­ings ar­ranged across the walls. The en­tirety re­sem­bled a claus­tro­pho­bic, dystopian land­scape of trauma and de­struc­tion.

The at­mo­spheric spray paint­ings of Gagosian’s Vivids ex­hi­bi­tion re­call ur­ban graf­fiti—not street art, but some­thing rawer and more hastily scrawled on un­der­passes, borne of an anx­i­ety to af­firm one’s ex­is­tence or mark one’s ter­ri­tory. The paint­ings are a re­sponse to gang tag­ging in Los An­ge­les. De­spite the gritty ref­er­ence point, the works look like ab­stract land­scapes, a nod to post-war Amer­i­can mod­ernism, prompt­ing art col­lec­tor Adam Lin­de­mann to re­fer to Ruby as the “graf­fiti Rothko.” Colours are sprayed on and lay­ered with­out the use of a brush, with­out pause for touch-ups. Out of de­face­ment emerge beau­ti­fully se­duc­tive com­po­si­tions. Though Vivids is Ruby’s first Hong Kong show, he has a his­tory in the re­gion. His in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion in Main­land China, cu­rated by Kate Fowle, took place in 2008 at Bei­jing’s Ul­lens Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art. Pace Bei­jing chose Ruby as its first Western artist for a solo show in 2011. Ruby has also been pro­duc­ing sculp­ture at a main­land foundry. “I started com­ing back of­ten, even­tu­ally work­ing and do­ing sculp­ture pro­duc­tion in Main­land China. I feel like, for the past five years or so, I have ex­hib­ited just as much in Asia as I have in Europe or the States. I have a lot of sup­port here. I will def­i­nitely con­tinue to come back as long as I am wel­come.”


in the pink One of Ster­ling Ruby’s most re­cent works, SP288, is spray paint on syn­thetic can­vas

anx­i­ety man­i­fest Ruby’s BC ( 4910), a work of fab­ric, glue and bleached can­vas on panel

poly­math poster boy From top: Big Yel­low Mama at Mu­seum DhondtDhae­nens in Bel­gium, 2013; SP185 ( 2011), spray paint on can­vas

street stu­dio The for­mer pro­fes­sional skate­boarder poses for a por­trait in Los An­ge­les in 2013

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