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Sterling Ruby: Sincerity and Horror

BY ARTHUR PEÑA PHOTOGRAPHY BY SERGIO GARCIA AND ROBERT WEDEMEYER

STERLING RUBY:SINCERITY AND HORROR

RUBY’S SCULPTURES TACKLE SOCIETAL COMPLEXITIES AT THE NASHER SCULPTURE CENTER.

Courtyard view of Ruby’s LA Studio.

After a warm greeting from Tyler, the manager of Ruby’s sprawling, gray warehouse studio just south of Los Angeles in Vernon, California, I begin my journey through what Ruby calls his “studio for life.” An assistant works on the floor in the first space, surrounded by mounds of cloth, reams of fabric, and crisp light from endless windows. Colorful quilts from Ruby’s personal collection are splayed across the floor with a few soft figural sculptures lying beside them. The next room is lined with massive, hazy, sprayed paintings and bustling with people packing and crating work. I walk outside and into the back building that houses the ceramics studio where multiple small, heart-shaped sculptures are laid out. Ruby is inspecting a fresh crop and promptly begins our conversation with thoughts on the ever-shifting nature of perfecting ceramic glazes. “It’s really a matter of always trying to get it, knowing that you’re never going to get it, and having surprises. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t.”

Ever one to reassess his output when something isn’t working, Ruby has found a way to resuscitate failures of the studio. We walk to an adjacent room where one of his modestly sized Basins is resting on

a pedestal. “This sculpture was a mix of older and newer pieces. The basin is new, but everything that’s inside of it is work that had blown up over the course of a 10-year period.”

The exploded pieces have been resurrected through the simple acknowledgment that their purpose had not been destroyed, merely shifted. “It’s nice to have older things laying around,” Ruby says, motioning to tubs full of ceramic shards, “to always remind myself that things have to change.” Staring down into the Basin, this enclave of a broken world, where time has been flattened and pink and red glazes pulse with guttural life, I was met with a sense of empathy for the bodily remnants sacrificed to the fires of the kiln. While his Heart and Basin works may reference the interior of the body, the exteriors of Ruby’s ceramic pieces and bronze casts are layered with imprints from fists and fingers pushing and kneading into the clay, imbuing the surfaces with an undeniable human quality and softening the visceral impact of the work.

Sterling and I walk out and around the back of the warehouse, across a graveled lot that doubles as a personal outdoor sculpture park. We pass a graveyard of large rusted metal scraps, a black

burned-out van, and enter back into the studio through a giant sliding bay door. Along the way, keeping a steady pace and accompanied by his mellow and warm demeanor, it’s clear that Sterling has a talent for making the monumental intimate. “I’ve always tried to look at things and deconstruct them to the point where they can be simplified, that they can be very immediate. It doesn’t have to be something that you really need to break down and analyze; you can have a very gut reaction to it.” Ruby further collapses the immediacy of our response by not imposing hierarchical meaning to any of his materials; wood, Formica, resin, weathered metal or cast bronze hold just as much emotional impact to the artist as the studio detritus and street trash dangling in SCALE. There is an authentic sincerity in the directness of how Ruby handles various media and an intuitive sensitivity in his understanding that material can carry nuanced readings, allowing us to have precious moments within what is an otherwise aesthetically austere oeuvre.

Walking through the space, we approach the immensely foreboding STOVE, standing starkly in his pristine industrial studio. The surface is covered in thick beads of melted metal that mend its many parts. “I know that weld will look like a scar. I think that there is always a conglomeration of real life and what you want to emulate through materials. Sometimes that has to do with bodies and war and…” Ruby trails off looking up at the stainless steel chimney.

If we view Sterling Ruby: Sculpture (open through April 21 at the Nasher Sculpture Center) through this lens, then the potential horrors of humanity play out through a sense of the body: Ruby’s iconic poured-urethane drips coagulate to a standstill, the elongated form of TROUGH morphs into a gravesite and headstone into which Laying Figure could find eternal repose.

Sterling Ruby, This Generation, 2007, wood, urethane, spray paint, denim, fabric, and fiberfill, 61 x 94 x 60 in. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer. Courtesy of Sterling Ruby Studio.

The body encountered under perceived trauma triggers a primal reaction and piques our morose curiosity. Exhumation Standing’s calcified corpse looms over the viewer, pulling us closer to examine

Sterling Ruby, Sightseer, 2008, Formica, wood, and spray paint, 96 x 96 x 48 in. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer. Courtesy of Sterling Ruby Studio.

its welded “scars” only to push us back with the abject notion that we see our own decaying body reflected back at us. Comprised of rebar and urban waste, the contorted ambiguous mass appears to have been pulled from the rubble of our contemporary ruins, colors from its rainbow patina disrupt the grave power of its mangled surface. Like Exhumation Standing, the towering scale of Elliptic Umbilic/ Fait Accompli forces us to reposition our bodies in relation to the object. The congealed entity threatens to engulf us, forging tension between our bodies and the spatial connection created by the sculpture’s presence. From the massive to the domestic, the works’ unrelenting shifts in scale keep us on edge as we are constantly having to negotiate our physical and psychological grounding.

Much like Mike Kelley and Chris Burden, whom Ruby studied under, Sterling’s work exudes an unadulterated sense of its maker. “For me, the artists who I’ve found most influential were definitely channeling their own trials and tribulations, and there was sincerity in that effort.” Ruby’s sculptures convey this effort and have the power to transport us to a very dark space, the flame of a welding

torch not only guiding our way but the path of the artist as seeker of personal truth. “It’s a total outlet, which I have always argued for in regard to art. I think a lot of artists don’t think that art should be an outlet, or they don’t think that art should be something that isn’t completely seen from A to Z.”

Ruby’s work has the undeniable capacity to conjure a somber, apocalyptic sense of the world, one in which the monolithic Sightseer has outlasted us all. The spray painted surface reads as if the work were incinerated along with everything else on a scorched earth, its unflinching square eyes surveying an unknown ominous landscape. However, in the ether of making, the busied body steadies Ruby’s mind. An unwavering belief in the value of creative labor feeds his pursuit. “It’s not just making a sculpture or a painting, maybe it’s working on an architecture project or maybe it’s working with a textile mill and seeing through the development of a different denim. It might take months, but the emotional place that it gets you to in the end is really special. It’s revelatory. I think that’s still, for me, very, very important. I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t feel that way.”P