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Making Sense of Sterling Ruby’s Beautifully Grotesque Art

Some artists find their niche and stick with it for decades. Others are restless, eager to experiment and challenge themselves at every turn. Los Angeles–based is firmly in the latter camp. Across the course of a single exhibition, diverse forms and media collide: colorful, 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. Ruby has also refused to be caged in by the white cube and has, over the past decade, dabbled in the fashion industry, releasing his own high-end clothing line earlier this year.
American audiences have a unique chance to experience this aesthetic overload in a sprawling survey that will open at the ICA Miami on November 7th, and then travel to the ICA Boston in late February 2020. Below, we explore several facets of Ruby’s wild, evocative practice, with a little help from the show’s co-curators, Alex Gartenfeld (artistic director of the ICA Miami) and Eva Respini (chief curator at the ICA Boston).

Collage

Ruby’s collages are a place for unhinged creative experimentation, combining found images, sketches, and gestural smears of pigment. “Within these works, we see the formation and evolution of a lot of his interests: the grid, prisons and institutions, architecture, domestic spaces and their psychogeography,” Gartenfeld said. “All of that resides, and perhaps begins, from the drawing and collage process.”
These works on paper are teasingly enigmatic. They might include snippets of text (“The Absolute Violation Comes From Institutional Minimalism”), photographs of the starry night sky cut up into geometric blocks, or pasted-on packaging for the asthma medication Advair.
For Gartenfeld and Respini, the philosophical notion of collage itself is vital to the artist’s entire practice. Ruby himself discusses this in the sense of what he dubs “illicit mergers.” Whether the work in question is an actual collage or not, the artist is consistently informed by the spirit of collage. “One can think about his methodology in terms of all the work being collage,” Respini explained. “That collision of different elements, ideas, and materials at times feels uncomfortable, and creates this sense of an aesthetic mess that is one of his signature visual languages.”

Monumental sculpture

Sterling Ruby, ACTS/WS ROLLIN, 2011. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. © Sterling Ruby. Courtesy of ICA Miami.

Sterling Ruby, ACTS/WS ROLLIN, 2011. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. © Sterling Ruby. Courtesy of ICA Miami.

Ruby’s Los Angeles studio is a factory-style production house, where he relies on the expertise of specialists who can help him realize his outsized ambitions. That includes hulking, gnarly pieces like Drag (Banker) (2015), a painted black mass of steel that incorporates repurposed engine blocks. These often-monochromatic nods to industrial aesthetics have a powerful, moody energy that resides somewhere between and . Yet Ruby’s large-scale sculptural practice is complex and untidy.
His works made using formica and tinted polyurethane, like ACTS/187 DREAMER (2009), look comparatively pristine, like high-end design objects that have been roughed up a bit. Elsewhere, he might drench the massive shape of a missile in a gooey bath of blood-red polyurethane.
Even when the works seem a bit lighter, or even whimsical, there’s often something sinister just beneath the surface. Big Yellow Mama (2013) looks cheery, until you realize that it’s a scaled-up riff on an electric chair formerly used in an Alabama prison. (As Gartenfeld noted, Ruby was also attracted to its form for the ways in which it recalls design principles.)
A further series, “Scales,” borrows the simple beauty of ’s mobiles, but replaces the modernist’s geometric forms with common objects: a case of Budweiser beer, a pair of bleached jeans. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on Ruby’s sculptural vision, he’s apt to dart off in a completely different direction—like an ongoing series of functional, wood-burning stoves.

Soft sculpture

There’s an intriguing duality in Ruby’s practice, with the brutality of metal and polyurethane clashing with an ongoing body of soft sculpture. These sewn and stuffed works are often figurative, alluding to recognizable forms: a candle, for instance, or the open maw of a vampire. “The soft sculptures, in many cases, hang from the ceiling, and appear limp,” Respini said. “[Or] they’re strewn on the floor, and perhaps they might even be read as corpses.” The curator recognizes a certain “limpness and deflatedness” in these pieces, in stark contrast to the muscular strength of other Ruby sculptures.
Often, the textile patterns themselves (like a repeating print of the American flag) have an ironic bite. One motif Ruby has returned to several times—in soft sculpture, as well as in other media—is that of the so-called “husband pillow.” This common domestic good, which makes it easier to sit up in bed and read a book, becomes something darker in Ruby’s hands; he stacks the shapes one atop the other, making them into something alien. “It alludes to polymorphous sexuality, as well as something as abject as The Human Centipede,” Gartenfeld explained. “It gives a nice insight into the play of the comedic and terrifying [in Ruby’s practice].”

Paintings

Ruby spent his teenage years in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, which gave him first-hand access to the craft and quilting traditions of the local Amish communities. Those early influences still resonate in his vibrant mixed-media paintings and wall-hanging textiles, which take a patchwork approach to pattern and abstract composition. QUILT (4858) (2014), for instance, pairs sections of dyed and bleached fabrics within a border of colorful elastic bands.
Regardless of how meticulously planned or conceived these works might be, they have a buoyant energy that prizes spontaneity, if not randomness. “This use of chance or the unique incident demonstrates just how important and central the studio is to Ruby’s work,” Gartenfeld said. “It speaks to the importance of process, of materiality and material transformation.” Respini added that “everything is an opportunity to be made and remade again, and nothing gets wasted,” including scraps and cast-offs from the studio floor.

Ceramics

Ruby initially began working with ceramics “as a form of therapy,” Respini said, while he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The medium has since become a central part of his practice: grotesque yet beautiful objects that prize a sensation of decay and overload. For his series “Basin Theology,” Ruby collects and coalesces smaller, unsuccessful ceramic pieces—a way to “swallow up failures,” according to Respini. These “basins” become containers to hold broken shards and odds-and-ends resembling everything from bodily waste to human organs.
These large-scale ceramics are both supremely confident—willing to take up space and make a statement—and unabashed in how they lean into what resembles technical amateurism. And however brutal or stomach-churning they might at first appear, they’re also somewhat sensual. “There’s an intimacy [to] the ceramics,” Respini said. “They have the imprint of the hand. They’re very tactile, erotic, one might even say feminine in their form,” compared to the “roughness and toughness” of Ruby’s metal sculptures.

Fashion

S.R. Studio. LA. CA by Sterling Ruby, at Pitti Uomo, 2019. Photo by Giovanni Giannoni. Courtesy of S.R. Studio. LA. CA.

S.R. Studio. LA. CA by Sterling Ruby, at Pitti Uomo, 2019. Photo by Giovanni Giannoni. Courtesy of S.R. Studio. LA. CA.

S.R. Studio. LA. CA by Sterling Ruby, at Pitti Uomo, 2019. Photo by Giovanni Giannoni. Courtesy of S.R. Studio. LA. CA.

S.R. Studio. LA. CA by Sterling Ruby, at Pitti Uomo, 2019. Photo by Giovanni Giannoni. Courtesy of S.R. Studio. LA. CA.

Ruby’s slow creep toward high-end fashion designer began around a decade ago, when he first created wearable outfits for his studio staff. They were cobbled together from pieces of textiles that hadn’t been used for finished works. “The uniform became a kind of studio camouflage,” Respini explained, “an extension of his paintings [onto] the body.”
Since then, this private diversion has become a very public sideline career, one that included collaborations with and, more recently, the launch of a dedicated clothing brand, S.R. Studio. L.A. C.A. Ruby’s splashy Italian runway show this summer had GQgushing that the artist’s line was “officially on fire.” (Actor Timothée Chalamet is also a fan.)
Respini traces Ruby’s fascination with fashion all the way back to the age of 13, when the young teen was sharpening his facility with a sewing machine in rural Pennsylvania. He’s certainly come a long way in that regard: A wild, cozy-looking wool cardigan (whose color palette somewhat resembles that of Ruby’s ceramics) will set you back a cool $3,695.
“Sterling bucks at the traditional constraints of being an artist,” Gartenfeld said. The fashion line itself is “a major undertaking, and a transgression—even though it might not appear that way to a broader public. It speaks to his willingness and ambition to look inside and outside of the art world, to communicate some of the things that he’s interested in.”
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.