THE ILLICT MERGER: MAKING SENSE OF STERLING RUBY
One of the most daring multi-disciplinary artists in the United States, Sterling Ruby examines the relationship between artistic expression and social hierarchies of control.
The artist was born to a Dutch mother and American father out of a military base in Germany. From there, he would spend his childhood migrating across middle-America. He studied under Mike Kelley at the Art Center College of Design. Here he worked under the tutelage of Artist Mike Kelley.
Ruby's collage work allows for different themes to be intricately spliced together, highlighting the inherent transgression that takes place within the medium. This "Illicit Merger" is central to Ruby's work. By showcasing two jarring dichotomies, he creates a visual dissonance that imbues each piece with its own alterity.
These collage pieces are integral to the artist's political and social messages. Making full use of his maximalist style, Ruby collocates images of archeological remains with that of incarcerated criminals. While in other pieces like Stellar Cannibals (2010), he imbues a traditional expressionist style with shark graphics, creating a conflict between an old art movement and a capitalist symbol of consumption. In his collage Prison (2004), Ruby juxtaposes a seemingly childlike line-drawing with bleak photos of a prison cell. This underlying element is what instills some of his pieces with their estranged gruesome quality.
Video has been integral to Ruby's mixed-media artwork since the early 2000s. Though none is more pertinent to the state-sponsored systems of oppression we face in a contemporary world than 2019's video installation, STATE. STATE examines the vastness and authoritarian nature of federal prisons in the states of California and Texas. Through a series of aerial drone shots, Ruby takes us through sprawling rural landscapes in California, then juxtaposed with the colossal array of prison complexes. He showcases how the unseen layout of these prisons denotes an architectural concept present in Foucault's Panopticon. Whee Foucault's prison cells face inwardly towards a central all-seeing eye, the prisons in California are designed to face each other, this is not for the sake of surveillance but to heighten the feeling of otherness and isolation from the outside world. Ruby himself provides the unnerving almost, militaristic drum soundtrack for the video. These video presentations usually examine the looming forces that continue to derange individual expression and the American psyche.
Graffiti has been integral to Sterling Ruby's output since, 2007 when he first began producing large-scale paintings through the medium. These paintings showcase a jarring contrast between heavy forms, abstract shapes, and dynamic colors. Through the re-contextualization of spray paint (a medium that bears countercultural implications) and the references to the abstract expressionist movement on a traditional canvas Ruby, subverts the old guard by melding high and low brow art.
His Grafitti pieces tend to play on this meta-theme where the act of painting as a whole is examined. While each piece is instilled with its own cultural references, Ruby has this way of contrasting those references with his own critique and dichotomies.
Ruby's sculptural work frequently draws reference from pop-culture, politics, or existing objects. These pieces are imbued with their own socio-political critiques. Appearing kitschy and characteristically whimsical on the surface, artworks like "Big Yellow Mama" hold much more weight to them when further examined. While appearing merely as an interestingly shaped sculptural piece of furniture, it is actually devised from an electric execution chair used in an Alabama prison.
In contrast, Ruby's soft sculptures take the form of over-sized plushies. His "Soft Work" Exhibition saw these pillow-like sculptures stacked on top of each other and suspended from the ceiling. The pieces were printed with American flag motifs and crafted in forms akin to husband-pillows. Some were mouths with blood-dripping fangs, alluding to the imperial forces at play in American geo-politics. These are among his most thought-provoking piece in terms of their relationship to form, space, and politics, all playing a different conceptual role within each piece.
For the last few decades, the lines between fashion and art have become increasingly more blurred. For over a century, art has spurned the fashion world, wanting to remain free of association. However, recent collaborations with big-name houses like Rei Kawakubo and Merce Cunningham or Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami have become increasingly ubiquitous.
Ruby has ridden this wave with increasing momentum throughout the years. A long-time collaborator of his is the Belgian menswear designer Raf Simons. The two met in 2008 when Simons asked Ruby to design the interior of his Tokyo Store. The store featured a recurring motif in their collaborative efforts, the now-famous bleached denim. The store was covered in bleached denim and paint splatter photo negatives, alluding to a dichotomy of "negative and positive", itself a recurring theme in Ruby's work.
Simons and Ruby continued their collaborative efforts a year later, releasing a bleached denim line shortly after the opening of Simon's Tokyo store. 2014 saw their most promising project come to life in Simons Autumn Winter Collection. The designer and artist's aesthetics blended seamlessly, with Simon's signature silhouettes and tailoring accenting Ruby's jarring collages. The pieces featured intricate color blocking, collage patches on knitwear, and bold contrasting colors mixed in with Ruby's political graphics like a shark maw and gloss-covered nail print. These two graphics are meant to critique western culture's obsession with consumption.
This past year saw Ruby turning his attention more fixedly towards the fashion world. Within his Pasadena studio, Ruby crafts his own line of workwear-inspired garments under the label SR. STUDIO LA. CA. The line consists of three subcategories: the main label, ED. 50, consisting of a 50 piece limited edition collection of garments, SOTO, which consists of garments fabricated in Ruby's studio, and UNIQUE, one-of-one pieces created by the designer. These three pillars make up Sterling Ruby's cross into the fashion world. The UNIQUE collection most closely resembles Ruby's output as an artist, featuring patched oversized ponchos made up of blended fabrics. These garments are cut asymmetrically, with the paperback covers of literary classics interspersed throughout each garment.
Sterling Ruby is of a rare breed of multi-disciplinary artists whose work seems to be nearly all-encompassing. The artist has a self-referential streak that enables his work to consistently morph with various concepts out of the seemingly banal. In one interview, Ruby tells of how looking at an aerial photo of a California prison, he associated the image with archeological sites. This lead to him examining his work as topographies, leading him into even deeper conceptual speculation about the nature of his art. It is this introspective streak that informs the manic nature of his art, an art that is ever-mutating and wholly individualistic.