A primary tension between repression and expression runs throughout L.A.-based Sterling Ruby’s multifaceted practice, at least as a jumping-off point. If for Ruby repression results from dogma—specifically the rigid tenets of Modernist art—then his work in turn expresses a thoughtful, pointed attempt to expose and counter any whiff of either. Minimalism has been a particular target (a much-cited print by Ruby declares “Kill Minimalism/Long Live the Amorphous Law”), and he mobilizes an inclusive, brash and often confrontational esthetic in heralding his charge.
All this rhetoric would go down less smoothly (after all, an anti-doctrine is itself no shy doctrine) if Ruby weren’t so adept with his materials, as evidenced in the recent exhibition “Spectrum Ripper” at Sprüth Magers. Here Ruby reacted to the Modernists’ suspicion of color (and their belief in its power to manipulate emotion) by dismantling the regimented color field altogether. Evoking a grimy street-art esthetic with industrial spray paint, all the paintings and sculptures on view displayed a similar palette of splotchy bright pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, blues and violets that bleed into one another and over a black ground.
The front room held a single installation comprising two large paintings and a pair of sculptures—long rectangular columns made of wood and Formica and placed horizontally on the floor. Ostensibly turning the venerated Minimalist “specific object” into a graffiti-covered bench, Ruby, according to the gallery’s press release, was “bringing down the monolith.” In the back room, another large painting and several small mixed-medium works completed the display. Done in paint and pencil, they feature colorful horizontal bands of cut-out paper set amid a sweeping dark background, and integrate both drawings and cutouts of red tear-shaped drops, or in one case, a looming silver switchblade.
Lacking the attractive-yet-repulsive visceral punch that typically accompanies his large drip sculptures and awkwardly compelling ceramics, this small show tilted toward the well-mannered (repressed?) end of Ruby’s artistic output. More poignant was the exhibition’s timing: the show coincided with Tate Modern’s Rothko blockbuster on view just across the Thames. Whether Ruby was taunting or offering tribute is up for debate, but “Spectrum Ripper” demonstrated that there is plenty left for artists to explore (or exploit) when approaching the use and abuse of color.