Why Sterling Ruby’s art is both terrifying and trending now

Sterling Ruby, Big Yellow Mama, 2013, powder coated aluminium, 243.8 x 142.2 x 142.2 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
Portrait of Sterling Ruby. Photo by Bennet Perez.
Sterling Ruby, DRAG ON, 2013, urethane, wood, cardboard tube, aluminum duct, spray paint, 203.2 x 495.3 x 162.6 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
Sterling Ruby, DRAG (BANKER), 2015, steel, engine blocks, and paint, 130.8 x 368.3 x 188.6 c. Credit: © Sterling Ruby.
Installation view of “THE JUNGLE” at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 17 September – 29 October, 2016. Credit: Photo by Timo Ohler. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers.
Installation view of “Selections from the Permanent Collection: Catherine Opie and Sterling Ruby” at The Geffen Contemporary, MOCA, Los Angeles, CA, 2 April – 12 June, 2017. Credit: Photo by Brian Forrest. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
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Iconic Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby’s art is increasingly on-trend, given his consistent focus on the darker and more terrifying aspects of contemporary existence, from country to self.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Almost nine months into a global pandemic, there is an unmistakeable darkness in the world today. Throughout our lives, we may have come across these darker aspects in a myriad of ways, be it within ourselves or in our external realities, but it has never really played out in such a sweeping way, regardless of generation or geography. We are all gripped by this darkness as we live each day during one of the most expansive existential threats we have faced since World War II.

 

Sterling Ruby, Big Yellow Mama, 2013, powder coated aluminium, 243.8 x 142.2 x 142.2 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.

 

During such an epoch, the kind of art that tends to resonate are works which take on these shadowy and sinister undertones. Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby’s art encapsulates this energy. For his solo exhibition in 2008 “Supermax 2008,” the artist transformed the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles into an immense installation comprising a variety of objects covered in fake blood and red polyurethane, epitomising the dire living conditions of the American prison system. Big Yellow Mama (2013) seems like a bright, cheery and whimsical patio chair-like sculpture, but in actual fact, it is a scaled-up version of an electric chair formerly used in a prison in Alabama.

Then there is DRAG ON (2013), a sculpture in the shape of a cannon, made of urethane, wood, cardboard tube and aluminium duct in crimson, azure and black paint. It brings to mind the American flag in a raw, powerful and liquified form that is uncannily prescient, given the current trajectory of the country. There is an explicable darkness in witnessing a country propelled as the beacon of liberty and happiness falling short, not just in the face of a public health crisis, but even in tackling the future of humanity. DRAG ON dares to boldly explore this darkness, highlighting the tension of individual impulses vs social control and American domination vs decline.

 

Portrait of Sterling Ruby. Photo by Bennet Perez.

 

To an extent, Ruby’s background explains the context of his art. The artist was born in 1972 on Bitburg Air Base, Germany, to an American father and a Dutch mother, before moving at a  young age to the United States, growing up in Baltimore and on a farm in Pennsylvania. It was during these years, that he encountered Amish quilt-making and Pennsylvania redware pottery, obvious inspirations for his exploration into ceramics, soft sculpture and garment making. The Institute of Chicago School of the Art graduate also worked in construction before art school, an integral skill in his artistic process.

This fluidity in Ruby’s life experiences could also be the reason behind his highly experimental and flexible outlook, translating into a single exhibition where “diverse forms and media collide: colourful, fractured ceramics; bleached textiles; epic metal sculptures that recall industrial machine parts; soft sculptures that are meant to resemble the open mouths of vampires, hungry for blood.” In addition to the diversity of issues he explores through art, Ruby works across various mediums such as sculpture, drawing, collage, ceramics, painting, and video with great ease.

 

Sterling Ruby, DRAG ON, 2013, urethane, wood, cardboard tube, aluminum duct, spray paint, 203.2 x 495.3 x 162.6 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
Sterling Ruby, DRAG (BANKER), 2015, steel, engine blocks, and paint, 130.8 x 368.3 x 188.6 c. Credit: © Sterling Ruby.

 

His refusal to be pinned down goes as far as a recent foray into fashion, with his very own high end clothing line known as S.R. Studio. L.A. C.A., which launched in 2019. His debut official runway show at Pitti Uomo, Florence last summer was such a hit that in October, Hollywood golden boy Timothée Chalamet sported one of his creations—paint-splattered overalls, matching button-up shirt, and clean white “Therapist Boots”—at the 24th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.

Described as a “perfectly pretentious descriptor for his luxury clothing,” the term “soft sculptures” is also a crucial part of Ruby’s artwork. These sculptures are sewn and stuffed works with allusions to familiar or fantastical forms, either found on the floor or hanging from the ceiling, most often appearing limp and deflated. They are also completely contradictory of his physically formidable sculptures such as DRAG (BANKER) (2015), a painted black mass of steel that incorporates repurposed engine blocks.

 

Installation view of “THE JUNGLE” at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 17 September – 29 October, 2016. Credit: Photo by Timo Ohler. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers.
Installation view of “Selections from the Permanent Collection: Catherine Opie and Sterling Ruby” at The Geffen Contemporary, MOCA, Los Angeles, CA, 2 April – 12 June, 2017. Credit: Photo by Brian Forrest. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

 

Even with the softer forms, Ruby plays on the terrifying, albeit in his characteristic comedic manner, such as the artist’s oft-used “husband pillow.” An item whose design function is to make it easier to sit up in bed seems otherworldly when presented stacked up atop each other, almost resembling The Human Centipede. He also fleshes out the darker aspects of modern existence—the series “Soft Work” (2012), essentially loose fabric sculptures sewn out of the American flag, is a tongue-in-cheek look at the pitfalls of overt patriotism.

Given his expansive creative output, it would seem as if his work exists solely on the outlier of each other, from the series of mobiles, “Scales” (2015), filled with common items such as a Budweiser beer can and a pair of bleached jeans to an ongoing series of fully functional stoves that burn wood.

In spite of this, the underlying focus of Ruby’s art is almost always clear, an unbidden look into the darkness of our true natures, be it as a country such as America, or as individuals in a society morphing and warping in ways we can only begin to understand if we dare face the shadows of our existence as boldly.

 

 

About the artist

Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) lives and works in Los Angeles. In 2014 his work was included in the Whitney Biennial, the 10th Gwangju Biennale and the 9th Taipei Biennial. Public collections include the Guggenheim Museum, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; MoMA, NY; MoCA, Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; MoCA, Los Angeles; LACMA, Los Angeles; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; SFMOMA, San Francisco; MMFA, Montreal; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; and Tate Modern, London.

 

 
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