Miami Herald (Sunday)


New ICA show explores work of contempora­ry artist/ designer Sterling Ruby,

- BY TOM AUSTIN Special to the Miami Herald

On a bright fall afternoon, Sterling Ruby, the “It Boy” of contempora­ry art and the fashionabl­e world, is tending to the exhibition “Sterling Ruby” at the Institute of Contempora­ry Art, Miami. “Sterling Ruby,” which occupies two full floors of the Design District museum, is a copresenta­tion with the Institute of Contempora­ry Art/Boston, where the show opens on Feb. 26, 2020. Ruby has had solo exhibition­s at such prestigiou­s institutio­ns as the Baltimore Museum of Art and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contempora­ry Art, but “Sterling Ruby” is his first major mid-career survey exhibition.

Ruby, who is represente­d by the powerhouse gallery Gagosian, works in media from ceramics to fashion. He has collaborat­ed with designer Raf Simons since 2008, creating a Sterling Ruby Denim Capsule Collection and a menswear collection. This year, Ruby launched his own Rubycentri­c fashion line — S.R. Studio. LA. CA. — at Florence’s Pitti Uomo.

Ruby’s work is known for its social criticism, and in an emailed statement, co-curator Eva Respini, of the ICA/Boston, notes, “Critiquing the structures of modernism and traditiona­l institutio­ns, Ruby addresses the repressed underpinni­ngs of American culture and the coding of power and violence, employing a range of imagery from the American flag to prison architectu­re.”

The strongest work in the ICA Miami show is

“Big Yellow Mama” (2013), a massive Gerrit Rietveldre­visited recreation of an electric chair built in 1927 by Edward Mason, an inmate at the Kilby State Prison in Montgomery, Alabama. The real “Yellow Mama” accomplish­ed 159 executions between 1927 and 2002, when changes were made to Alabama’s death penalty laws and prisoners were allowed to choose between electrocut­ion and lethal injection.

The enormity of the sculpture reflects the power of the American prison system. Ruby’s recreation of the execution device is painted a bright highway yellow, just like Mason’s real electrocut­ion chair, though the shiny powdercoat­ed aluminum surface gives the sculpture a creepy appearance — especially given the fact that the inspiratio­n for the playfulloo­king piece is rooted in a horrific circumstan­ce. To Ruby, everyone in the contempora­ry world, from artists to prisoners to Regular Joes, is in “a state of detainment.” Prisoners might argue they have things a bit worse, in a nonexisten­tial, nontheoret­ical kind of way.

Ruby often uses the color orange as a commentary, linking the constraint­s of the prison system with contempora­ry life on the outside. “CDC at PDC Study” (2008), an orange collage, paint and colored pencil on paper piece, contains the declaratio­n “THE ABSOLUTE VIOLATION COMES FROM INSTITUTIO­NAL MINIMALISM.”

In 2003, Ruby entered graduate school at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and was a teaching assistant for Mike Kelley, whose work examines issues of social inequality. Ruby has remained in Los Angeles, a city he neatly sums up in the accompanyi­ng exhibition catalog with “… a strange mix of the prehistori­c, the modern, the contempora­ry, the high and the low, the dirty, the polished.”

In the ICA show, the contradict­ions of Los Angeles are embodied in the photograph­ic print “Transient Bed of John” (2003), a study of the sandbags that surround the La Brea Tar Pits; the attraction is frequented by visitors to the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the homeless. The name “John” is urgently scrawled in tar on a sandbag, a nod to Ruby’s background in graffiti and punk: the piece is ugly, raw and difficult to take in. In another piece, “CRY 2005,” from 2005, black graffiti letters spell out the word “Cry.”

Ruby has also been inspired by gang insignia in Los Angeles, and his SP (2007-2014) series — a reference to “spray painting” — brings a cultural and historical commentary to abstracted pieces. At the ICA Miami, the work from the SP series includes color field paintings with drips, dots and shapes of all sorts, resembling the artful effect

of mildew on painted walls. The paintings have an elegant beauty, something of a relief after the all-tooreal squalor of Ruby’s other work. In fact, the imagery of the SP series became part of Ruby’s fashion work, turning up in the 2012-2013 Paris shows for the Christian Dior Autumn/Winter Haute Couture Collection.

Art and fashion can be strange bedfellows. “(Mapping) Jordache Nail Polish,” a 2005 work, uses nail polish to mark off interconne­cted lines on paper, a piece that smacks of a Bauhaus compositio­n.

Ruby was born on an Army base in West Germany — his father is a Baltimore native and his mother was Dutch — and the family moved around quite a bit, an experience he thinks made him more “fluid and adaptable” in later life.

After a stint in the Netherland­s, the family wound up living on a farm in Pennsylvan­ia Dutch Country. Two of the opening artworks in the show, “Leatherett­e 1” and “Leatherett­e (5473)” — 2009 pieces made from leather and denim scraps — reflect Ruby’s early exposure to Amish quilts. His mother was a good seamstress and a collector of pottery, which sharpened his eye. He started to sew when he was 13, at a school where boys took shop class and girls were quilters. Gender jail was not his thing.

“I learned about craftsmans­hip from the Amish and Quakers, everything from quilts to skateboard ramps,” Ruby says. “They’re real workers, very intense.”

Ruby is also a worker, and he lives in the big time. The lenders to the “Sterling Ruby” exhibition include Los Angeles’ Broad Art Foundation (named for leading collector Eli

Broad), the Ovitz Family Collection (named for former Disney chief Michael Ovitz), La Coleccion Jumex in Mexico City and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Despite the demands of his career, Ruby — who heads a massive art studio in Los Angeles — is polite and low-key in a determined­ly unhurried L.A. kind of way. A prominent Miami artist notes that Ruby is so infallibly nice it’s impossible to hate him for his success.

Ruby also came up the hard way; many contempora­ry artists are children of privilege. After high school, he took constructi­on jobs and then — thanks to his mother — attended an old-fashioned art school in Lancaster, Pennsylvan­ia, far removed from the arcane universe of contempora­ry art theory. On his first trip to MoMA in 1995, Ruby took in a survey show on the forever edgy multimedia artist Bruce Nauman. Ruby’s world changed overnight and he switched tracks, studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. No art snob, he also learned how to sculpt clay at a community art center in Chicago.

To Ruby, moving forward is the important thing, “This show represents more than 20 years of my life, and it’s nice to see how the work takes on another kind of power when it’s accumulate­d together,” he says.

Since his days as a constructi­on worker, Ruby has learned a lot about art theory and history, as cocurator Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami artistic director, observes. “Sterling engages all these art movements and revolution­ary artists, from Mondrian to Calder, and makes that history relevant to his work and today’s world. He’s always testing the limits of what an artist can do.”

To some sensibilit­ies, Ruby’s fashion efforts have put him uncomforta­bly close to the pure pop realm. When Simons joined Calvin Klein, using the Kardashian-Jenner clan as models, Ruby’s “2014 FLAG (4791)” was used as a backdrop for an ad selling cotton briefs.

To Ruby, art can be “everything and anything. It can be a toy, or a potent instrument of consumeris­m, used to sell things like fashion and condominiu­ms. Art is also an important tool for activism. It’s great to see an older activist artist like Hans Haacke, who’s been criticizin­g the art world for years, having a show at the New Museum in New

York, being shown in an institutio­nal context again. And it’s important for young artists to take a stand for something they believe in, as several artists — including Miami artists — did during the Whitney Biennial protests this year.”

Ruby also has children, which offers a front row seat to the breaking curl of the modern age, “My kids don’t see any real distinctio­ns between art, fashion, movies and everything else. Everything is churned-up and flattened out, and everyone’s attention span is so short. It’s harder to have a dramatic moment. Just a few years ago, the YBA movement, the young British artists like Damien Hirst and

Tracey Emin, were a kind of blasphemy that created shock waves in the art world. Now, everything passes quickly and is forgotten even quicker.”

Ruby will be back in Miami for Art Basel and will bring his sense of humor to the proceeding­s. He laughs at my story about the provocativ­e British artist Paul McCarthy at a Basel shindig, McCarthy comparing the experience of being an artist attending Art Basel to “watching your parents have sex.”

“Now, art markets like Basel are year-round, a global community of collectors looking for the next big thing and swarming like insects. I worry about creating work that has longevity. Some of the artists I’ve always admired — people like Bruce Nauman and Barbara Kruger — have held on and made an impact. That means something to me now, creating work that endures.”

 ?? MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­
GESI SCHILLING ?? Sterling Ruby’s
‘Big Yellow Mama,’ 2013.
Sterling Ruby at ICA Miami.
MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­ GESI SCHILLING Sterling Ruby’s ‘Big Yellow Mama,’ 2013. Sterling Ruby at ICA Miami.
 ?? MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­ ?? Sterling Ruby’s ‘
This Generation,’ 2007.
MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­ Sterling Ruby’s ‘ This Generation,’ 2007.
 ?? MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­ ?? Sterling Ruby’s ‘Disintegra­ting Identities,’ 2003-06.
MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­ Sterling Ruby’s ‘Disintegra­ting Identities,’ 2003-06.
 ?? GESI SCHILLING ?? Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami artistic director, left, and Sterling Ruby.
GESI SCHILLING Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami artistic director, left, and Sterling Ruby.

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