Miami Herald (Sunday)
A FASHIONABLE BLEND
New ICA show explores work of contemporary artist/ designer Sterling Ruby,
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.”