DESCRIBED AS ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING ARTISTS TO EMERGE THIS CENTURY, STERLING RUBY IS STAGING HIS FIRST SOLO SHOW IN HONG KONG. Diana d’arenberg PARMANAND DISCOVERS HIS SKATEBOARDING PAST AND HIS WIDE-RANGING INFLUENCES
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.”
“I HAVE OFTEN THOUGHT THAT FORMALISM IS LIKE THE RECURRING CURE FOR MY GENERATION’S OVERLOADED POSTMODERNIST UPBRINGING”
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