Artistic transgressor

The polymorphous art of Sterling Ruby embraces paradox, confounds expectations, and defies easy categorisation. Yet at the same time his creative output partakes of and helps establish new paradigms for defining what art is – and what it does – in the contemporary scene. Ruby’s art relies on theoretical flexes that often disorientate viewers at first encounter, but his art functions most effectively at just such junctures, when viewers are in the intermediate state of wonder and discomfort. He works at dizzying speed, using disparate materials to construct disjunctive forms, which are building blocks of a dystopian landscape.

Born in Germany to a Dutch mother and an American GI father, Ruby was then raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. He went to an agriculture school and worked in construction before studying art at the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design. He later received his BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith singled out Ruby as “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century” – high praise indeed for a still-youthful artist with but a decade of exposure.


Is Sterling Ruby a pseudonym?
No, it’s my real name. It’s a conflation of fine jewellery and pornography that encapsulates everything from “Sterling” to “Ruby.” It’s a hybrid sensation of something really high and something really low. People have told me that when they searched my name in Google, they found a mix of those things. As a child it was a difficult thing but as I got older, I’m really appreciative of being burdened with it. But there were times, particularly during interviews, where I had to show my passport. It was good to authenticate it.

How do you keep your identity stable while creating such a varied output?
I view my work as a kind of “freneticism” – a way of making things appear schizophrenic – and things are laid out in a confusing way to convey that symbolism or aura. It’s a collage, or an illicit merger, and things become so dichotomous that they aren’t meant to belong to one another. Whenever you look at my work, whether it’s a photograph, a collage, a video installation, or a bronze, urethane, or ceramic sculpture, it needs to have that aura. At the beginning it was difficult for people to understand how an anthropomorphic ceramic could be juxtaposed with a geometric block, but it became apparent as I made more installations.

Is the frenetic approach to making art sustainable?
It might become problematic over time but I’ve always thought of art as something that you work through in an experiential way. I’m always making work – whether it’s successful or not, whether it could show or not, whether it’s public or private – and there are a lot of works that haven’t been in the public view. But I feel it’s necessary to always be making work and working through stages in a very frenetic sense. Who knows if ten years down the road I will say I’m going to stop everything and become an abstract painter. That’s a big possibility.


Why do you assault the surfaces of your works?
We have people inscribing themselves onto the surface of turmoil in cities like Los Angeles, and I wanted to convey that on an object. Most public areas in LA have inscriptions where people are trying to create expressions on anything that they can get their hands on. It could be graffiti or gang-oriented territorialism. I started thinking about how apparent and detrimental that was, and about what that meant for us as a society – and what these inscriptions meant. People were trying to have an expression in a time when expression was restricted. I wanted to trace the residues of the maker or makers of these inscriptions. I started out with Formica where I would ask the people in the factory not to wash their hands, and leave the glue and fingerprints on the objects, and we would do the same thing in the studio. I wanted to have the residue of transformation to become evident, and to be a kind of aesthetic.

Are you repudiating minimalism?
It was something a lot of press placed on me. I don’t think that at all. Again there’s lineage in art history where there is a place and time for that ideology, and I’m not saying that minimalism can’t change. Maybe there’s the minimalism of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and then it changes every time and encompasses something completely different. But the catalysts between those years are definitive. I think it’s a really good time right now because a movement hasn’t been generated. Whether or not our generation will coin one is still up in the air.

Does your work belong to the “up in the air” movement then?
I think so, and I think that also says a lot about where artists are today, what their questions are, and whether they feel up against the wall in regards to what to do next. It’s undefined, unnamed, and undecided. I really like the work of Cai Guo-Qiang or Zhang Huan, Chinese artists who use autobiography and cultural nationality to make art that has a total aesthetic. Yet their work is hyper-charged with theory. If you’re a painter you probably weren’t making works like that, or would behold that kind of thing, but I think that’s changing because people are again up against the wall and not knowing where to go.

Did you risk commodifying your art in collaborating with Raf Simons? (The pair collaborated on a denim line).
Raf and I are good friends, and I like the way he works. He was on a schedule that was constant and would make changes to his aesthetics on heavy periodic cycles. I found that liberating because even though there was a lineage between everything he does, he did it so fast. He was an immediate artist and I also do this over-frenetic production in my studio. In regards to commodification, I was hesitant at first but I had been conceptually doing this bleaching of fabrics and sculptures to begin with, and so my project with Raf was this continuation of how I was already degrading material. I was destroying materials and what better way than to work with this master of design, and to destroy his denim before they become fashion.

by Peter Yeoh

Interview taken from Glass Issue 4 Winter 2010  –  Secret
Sterling Ruby’s art played a central role in  Raf Simons’ recent debut couture collection for Dior (July 6, 2012).

About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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