Mucking Up the Masters: The Unruly Sculptures of Sterling Ruby

At Nasher Sculpture Center, the prolific artist’s solo exhibition chafes at the history of Western modernism

The Nasher Sculpture Center is, by many metrics, something of a paradise for art. Designed by Renzo Piano, the building’s travertine walls and barrelvaulted glass ceilings provide a warm, light-filled setting for expensive objects made of steel, stone, wood and bronze. A graceful garden, designed by Peter Walker, is home to sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Anthony Caro and Alexander Calder.

A recent survey exhibition of sculpture by Sterling Ruby, installed in these luxury environs, looked strangely inert. Strange, not just because of the generally high quality of the work, but because in many respects this seems to be the context that Ruby desires most for his art: to be in conversation (and competition) with the masters of Western modernism. At his best, however, he palpably chafes against the architecture of the institutional settings in which this kind of work is usually found.

The earliest works in ‘Sterling Ruby: Sculpture’, both from 2006 when the artist was just a year out of college, are grubby, emotionally raw retorts to the poker-faced minimalism of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Tony Smith. Inscribed Monolith (ORGY-Alabaster) (2006), a tall, scuffed white Formica box, is blank except for the semi-legible graffiti scratched faintly into it. In the exhibition’s catalogue, curator Jed Morse quotes Ruby describing the territorial gang graffiti he sees around Los Angeles: ‘I’ve always wanted to do that to a Judd,’ he says. In ACTS (Double-FUCK U DEMON) (2006), the defaced Formica box reappears, this time as a plinth for two translucent urethane blocks with red dye bleeding through them.

Sterling Ruby, 'Sculpture', 2019, exhibition view, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Courtesy: the artist and Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

In a downstairs gallery at the Nasher devoted to stuffed fabric works, a printed ‘S.R.’ label, with title, serial number and signature, is stitched to the backside of the large VAMPIRE FLAG (RWB) (2011) – a padded lattice of US flags, fangs and blood drops that looks as if it had been dragged around in the dirt. Nearby, the huge CANDLE (5448) (2015) rests on the floor, its commercially printed orange fabric patterned with a claw motif and the initials ‘S.R.S. L.A. C.A.’

The exhibition’s approach, cherrypicking examples from the different strands of Ruby’s oeuvre, belies the serial production of this hyper-prolific artist. In the catalogue, Ruby describes his impulse toward seriality as a pathological symptom; in his legendarily expansive Los Angeles studios, diverse processes – ceramics, wood and metalwork, painting, collage, fabric dyeing, garment design and production – are managed together in something like a networked cottage industry. (The artist has even considered producing uniforms for his staff.) Most of these processes are represented in this exhibition, in which heterogeneous objects productively relate in a coherent vision.

Sterling Ruby, The Cup, 2013, foam, urethane, wood and spray paint, 2.3 × 2.9 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

One example: Ruby’s work has consistently played on representations of liquidity and wetness, a trope that recurs not only in his urethane monoliths but also in the dripping stalactites that dominated his breakout 2008 exhibition, ‘SUPERMAX 2008’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, but which are notably absent in this survey. The closest we get to those works here is with Ruby’s atypically figurative (and atypically hilarious) sculpture The Cup (2013), a giant teacup dripping with red urethane – an object that seems to have come direct from a dream, or nightmare. The Cup is a variation on another of Ruby’s investigations into different kinds of vessels – including his ceramic basins containing broken kiln misfires, such as Basin Theology / ViCAP (2010), whose title refers to the ‘Violent Criminal Apprehension Program’ and Ruby’s preoccupation with the American criminal justice system. (Is a prison another kind of vessel?) Fluidity, in Ruby’s work, is not just a formal motif or a conceptual allusion, but something of an operating principle: flowing through ideas, filling spaces and over-spilling contexts, this ambitious output seems constantly to want to occupy more territory than the traditional art world has available for it.

Sterling Ruby, ‘Sculpture’ was on view at Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, from 2 February until 21 April 2019.

Main image: Sterling Ruby, 'Sculpture', 2019, exhibition view, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Courtesy: the artist and Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

Issue 204

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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