The Survivalist: Q+A With Sterling Ruby
Coming from an artist known for working in an excess of media on a monumental scale, Sterling Ruby's current solo exhibition, "Paintings," at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, is surprisingly single-minded. The show features 11 large-scale, abstract works that that read like color field paintings, created using spraypaint. Ruby first tags his compositions in bright colors, and then goes over them in black—as if to deface his own work, hinting at the spectral presence of images and objects unable to break through to the surface. Full of mourning and acute claustrophobia, these tags become trapped forever in the dense web of demarcated area that is inherent in the confined space of a flat canvas.
We caught up with Sterling Ruby to discuss how "Paintings," the first of his three solo shows to open this year, fits into the grander scope of his oeuvre.
BRIENNE WALSH: Is this exhibition the first straight painting show you have ever done?
STERLING RUBY: Yes... Despite enjoying the act of painting so much, I was reluctant to only show paintings in a gallery space. It's rare for me to focus on one medium but I felt it was time for them to stand on their own. They've turned rather formal, abstract and have a particularly dark palette, because they've been worked over so many times.
WALSH: Your work is often related to post-minimalism because of the way it folds references to graffiti sub-cultures into form. How does that manifest in your paintings?
RUBY: The paintings that I have been making over the last four years initially took their cues from my observations of tagging, vandalism and the power struggles associated with gang graffiti. Now, as with a lot of recent work, I have been thinking about them less conceptually.
WALSH: In an exhibition that focuses on one medium, the titles of each painting bear added weight. I wonder if you could explain how you named each work, and what each of these titles stand for, both in these and in past exhibitions?
RUBY: The titles vary widely: sometimes they reference code for a series in a specific material or color combination. For example, the titles in "Paintings" are just numerical: "SP147," "SP148," etc. But in past exhibitions, I've used government abbreviations to imply pathology or order. I've used drug terminology, street slang, song lyrics, psychoanalytic vocabulary, art historical terms and of course personal experiences and acquaintances, which I suppose are very autobiographical. Mr. Reuptake, a bronze sculpture I made in 2010, was someone I used to know who sold ecstasy, so it's a portrait. Sometimes the titles simply describe the piece in a matter of fact way, like Bus (2010) or The Masturbators (2009).
WALSH: You've been described by Joao Ribas in Flash Art as being part of a "post-humanistic" generation of artists. It's not a term with a definition, but I wonder how it strikes you?
RUBY: "Post-humanistic" is too vague an idea to be a generational "movement"—so far, anyway. That said, I do think artists my age are fighting the symptoms of excess. In a way, I think of the post-human as the end result of our being overwhelmed by our own history, theories, politics, etc. My work reflects the paranoia or schizophrenia of that contemporary conditioning, which makes what I do survivalist in nature. I am also thinking that this is why so much straight formalist work is being made by so many young artists. For me, I see it as a therapeutic or healing process, after being trained in so much institutional theory. I did an interview recently listing some of my pet "posts": post-anxiety, post-cynicism, post-transgression, post-depression, post-war, post-law, post-gender...
WALSH: Your painting in this exhibition, and your work in general, strikes me as articulating a post-apocalyptic character. They're proposed relics of a post-nuclear age. Would you say that your work laments the current state of affairs in culture?
RUBY: Anti-Print 3 (2005) has an image of a ceramic kiln. I continually return to the image of the kiln as a visual marker, because I see it as a metaphor for the current lamentation of the loss of sincere gesture and expression. Perhaps I feel as though we can't get it back, so all of these things become monuments. The series of "SUPERMAX" works, which were large sculptural pieces that were exhibited in 2008 at MOCA in Los Angeles, and the "2TRAPS" exhibition [at the Pace Gallery] in New York last year, attempted the same. Those works channel an American prison system that has no correction, only detainment. It's a parallel world to the one we exist in now. The bus and the cage in the "2TRAPS" show were like time machines for me. The prison bus transcends time depending on if it is taking you in or out of this parallel institutional system. Those works simultaneously embodied a tarnished past, a stagnating present, and warnings for an apocalyptic future.
In April, Ruby's exhibition "I AM NOT FREE BECAUSE I CAN BE EXPLODED ANYTIME" opens in Berlin at Sprüth / Magers. In September he'll have a show at PACE Beijing.