Sterling Ruby’s exhibition at Hauser and Wirth’s cavernous downtown gallery was a stunning display of sculpture and painting that challenged viewers with aggressive scale, colors and textures. The most memorable pieces, like Big Yellow Mama (2013), announced themselves as though with a bullhorn. (All other works 2014, unless otherwise noted.) The 8-foot-tall, powder-coated aluminum sculpture depicts a geometrically simplified version of the electric chair used in Alabama from 1927 to 2002. (The original device was painted with yellow highway-line paint.) It has all the ironic, manufactured gloss of Pop—equal parts Warhol and Oldenburg. Ruby brilliantly renders the monstrous banal by remaking it in the oversize proportions and garish brightness of so much public art.
Oldenburg’s slopped and wobbly surfaces and his acute grasp of the innuendo and impotence embedded in mass culture’s fetish objects infused much of the exhibition. Ruby brings Oldenburg’s wry postwar Pop to its postindustrial conclusion: if Pop revealed weaknesses in America’s images of its own success, here Ruby shows that those images have long since collapsed. One reads despair in work like HANGING FIGURES, two huge elongated bodies—stuffed and lumpy like pantyhose dolls from a country fair—made from what look like stitched-together American flag Snuggies. Suspended from the rafters, their jointless arms are sewn together as they crumple on the floor in a torpid (or desperate) embrace.
Several sculptures reprise a technique found in Ruby’s “Monument Stalagmites” series. These earlier works were made by pouring bright red urethane, which hardens quickly, into long, gooey strings. In Pillars, four roughly 11-foot-tall columns are covered in that material. The capitals, dripping with what look like bloody icicles, are bored with holes that recall air scoops from 1970s muscle cars. The muscular motif was echoed in SCALE/BATS, BLOCKS, DROP (4837), a huge mobile comprising, among other things, engine blocks and baseball bats.
The Cup was the exhibition’s visceral center—a gargantuan teacup, tilted and overflowing with red urethane, its drippings frozen in time. If Ruby intended specific allusions, they’re left undefined. Still, the blood associations were unavoidable: amid wars and school shootings, millennial America’s bloody cup runneth over.
The works’ rougher-hewn qualities and mix of low and high materials placed them as close to Arte Povera as to the Process art of Robert Morris and Lynda Benglis. The floor-bound Basin Theology/2C-T-XX (2013), made of brightly glazed ceramic, and two wall-hung examples from Ruby’s “Debt Basin Vertical” series, both bronze, bear the rude, anxious marks of an oversize clay ashtray modeled by a child. Inside these roundish forms lie sundry bits of industrial detritus: pipes, broken vessels, tools, hinged metal objects. Take the leftovers, the damaged and extraneous shards of your existence, they seem to say, and toss them in a bin. Call it a belief system or just the symbol of a life spent scraping by.
On the walls, large two-dimensional pieces provided a backdrop for Ruby’s more impressive sculptures. The collage FLAG, over 14 by 28 feet, consists of patched-together pieces of fabric dyed in red, white and blue, intermixed with bleach-spotted swatches of black and brown. For his “SP272” series, Ruby spray-paints blurry fields of multi-chromatic horizontal bands onto canvas, invoking a graffiti-covered cityscape viewed from a speeding train.
Urban decay, American patchwork, the built-in failures of systems: these are longstanding themes in Ruby’s work, and to the extent that the wall pieces helped provide a kind of soundstage, they were functional. But most did not do much on their own, nor did they advance the most exciting, organic aspects of Ruby’s oeuvre.
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.