America 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 too much vicodin, the hungry vampiric fanged smiles ready to consume us.
Sterling Ruby. It reads like a pseudonym for a hippy pirate-radio DJ, but the 42-year old German born artist’s name appears to be everywhere at the moment. He has made every next-big-thing list for the past several years, and has been linked to a string of top-tier galleries, which, like a modeliser, he ditched for a better and more illustrious name as his star rose. There was LA based Marc Foxx, Metro Pictures in Manhattan, Pace Gallery, Hauser and 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 The New York Times’ 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, who, often photographed with a bandana covering his long blonde hair, resembles a West Coast skater-cum-red-neck-biker, has been remarkably busy. 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.
His textile ‘Soft Works’, like his Art Basel 2014 installation, explode out over the exhibition space. In the patchwork of bleached, dyed, and stitched fabric the artist calls upon references from feminism, economic liberalism, and the penal system. But the recurring use of textile and patchwork in Ruby’s work is also rooted in biography. “I’ve always been somewhat obsessed…they [patchwork quilts] were one of my early visuals, because we lived so close to Lancaster 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 stated in an earlier interview this year. Memory and personal history is married with the sociological, the historical and the political here as it is in all of his work.
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 post-modernism. Later, while enrolled in the MFA programme at Pasadena’s Art Centre College of Design, he served as Mike Kelley’s teaching assistant for two years. The late LA artist’s influence on Ruby’s work is palpable in his textile installations, which often look like a collaboration between Californian hardcore punk band Black Flag and Kelley. Although Ruby didn’t graduate from art school—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, 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 reoccurring cure for my generation’s overloaded Post-Modernist 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 also 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 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 deliberation, without pause for touch-ups. Out of defacement emerge beautifully seductive compositions.
Though Vivids is Ruby’s first Hong Kong show, the artist has a history in the region. His inaugural exhibition in Mainland China, curated by Kate Fowle, took place in 2009 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.”
Ruby x Raf
Art and fashion collaborations have moved beyond the novelty phase. Luxury and high street brands, shoe designers, bag designers—you name it, they’re collaborating. There was Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton; Rob Pruitt and Jimmy Choo; Cerith Wyn Evans and British milliner Stephen Jones; and Damien Hirst with just about everybody. The latest is Sterling Ruby’s Autumn/Winter 2014 menswear collaboration with Christian Dior creative director Raf Simons.
The collection fuses Ruby’s punk rock aesthetic with the designer’s structured minimalism. The result is a capsule collection that’s anything but minimal; its patchwork coats and jumpers, paint- and bleach-splattered suits, and acid-neon denim have a DIY feel reminiscent of the grungy ’90s. It’s the kind of thing that can be worn with a mullet while hanging around Berlin’s Banhof Zoo station in an effort to recapture the city’s hedonistic heydays. It’s quite a contrast to Simons’ Dior 2012 A/W Haute Couture collection – a swirl of pretty silks on full skirted gowns and distinctive Dior feminine silhouettes — which also utilized prints inspired by Ruby’s textile collages.
“Collaboration is so hard among creatives; it often ends in disaster,” says Ruby, a long-time friend of Simons, who has collected the artist’s work since his early years. “I think we both know each other well enough to have made it work.” He dismisses criticism that crossing into fashion makes him a sell-out. “It is hypocritical to say art is a less commercial domain than fashion. I enjoy the fact that a huge portion of people who cannot have an artwork due to cost or space can have a garment. I also like that this is more akin to how I first understood visual culture. I wore what I did and still do because it has an aesthetic that expressed an attitude.”