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Sterling Ruby Talks His New Show, Punk Rock, and Why You Won’t Find Him at Frieze

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Sterling Ruby

Photo: HANGING FIGURES (4838); 2014; Fabric and fiberfill; 388.6 x 480.1 x 414 cm / 153 x 189 x 163 in

Thanks to a Fall ’14 menswear collaboration with Raf Simons, Sterling Ruby has become somewhat of a household name amongst the fashion set. But in the midst of his splattered sartorial foray, many missed out on the sheer scope and scale of Ruby’s accomplishments off the catwalk (as far back as 2008, The New York Times’ Roberta Smith dubbed him “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century”).

Sunrise Sunset, which bowed in NYC Friday night at Hauser & Wirth’s West 18th Street outpost, offers a good opportunity to catch up. The L.A.-based Ruby has tackled 10,000 square feet of exhibition space to create a wondrously ominous playground of new works. His pieces are informed as much by institutions (Ruby was born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany, and grew up in the darkly named, rural town of New Freedom, Pennsylvania) as a lack thereof (punk and skate cultures were among his earliest aesthetic touchstones). Faceless, flaccid effigies in a deceptively cuddly Stars and Stripes fleece hang from the rafters, and a bleach-riddled patchwork flag presides over the space from a back wall. Elsewhere, murky, spray-painted horizons recall graffiti. Ranging from ruminations to eviscerations, these works turn an eye to topics like the prison system and U.S. military involvement, and are affecting in a way that’s rare for such large-scale pieces.

We sat down with the master of many mediums to talk punk, bleach, and why you “goddamn well” won’t find him at Frieze.

Sterling Ruby

Photo: SCALE / BATS, BLOCKS, DROP (4837); 2014; Wood, steel, fabric and fiberfill, paint, and mixed media; 459.7 x 454.7 x 396.2 cm / 181 x 179 x 156 in

I’ve read that you came to art through punk rock and skate culture. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I grew up primarily in rural Pennsylvania. I went to a pretty straight agriculture school. We had calligraphy and we had drafting—those were the only two art classes. And around the age of 12, I think I loved skateboarding and the associations [with it]. At that point in time, skateboarding was so closely merged with not only the aesthetics but also the attitude of California punk. There wasn’t necessarily a cultural background to my family; there weren’t museums. My family didn’t know art. It wasn’t a visual childhood, and so when I reached 12, 13, I got super-obsessed with that kind of lifestyle [and there] was already a type of aesthetic associated with that, and so it was to me a real challenge to associate a look with an attitude, and that became something that has mostly held true throughout my adulthood. Later on, when I started to meet a lot of other artists, like Mike Kelley, those things were also how they were introduced to visual culture. Not through art, per se, but through music.

Why L.A.? I’ve heard people talking a lot about the artistic community there being at a point of change.
I first started art school in 1990, and I went to a straight formal foundation school in Pennsylvania. When I say foundation school, it was like four years of figure studies, bowls of fruit, perspective and a lot of color theory. But the school modeled most of its curriculum on, like, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which stops very much at modernism. I mean, you had your de Kooning books, but there wasn’t anything that seemed crazy and out there, and I remember sometime around ’93, Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s was bought by the library at the school. It was such a strange thing for this library to get, and I liked the pathology of the work that I saw within [it]. That made me really interested in Los Angeles as a place, as opposed to, say, New York. Years later I went to visit for the first time and I just felt super-comfortable with it, and I knew that I could feed off of that behavioral geographic. So when I wanted to go to graduate school, I only applied to two places— Art Center [College of Design] and UCLA. UCLA didn’t let me in, so I went to Art Center. But it was perfect. I became Mike Kelley’s teaching assistant for three years, and I’ve been pretty happy ever since. It’s also cheaper; you can work outside most of the year; and geographically, there’s a lot of diversity within it. It’s a big suburb. It’s not a real city, you know? And I quite like that about it. It’s so spread out and there’s a lot of hermeticism. People can easily stay isolated for long periods of time, whereas I think the logistics of New York don’t allow that as much.

How do you feel about the proliferation of art fairs?
I don’t really feel one way or another about it, but I think strategically I’ve realized that you need to be more selective or you’ll burn yourself out. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea of people seeing the work, but it’s the context within the work…whether or not it’s shoved into a corner that has a bad floorboard on it…something like that. So those are qualities that are negative, but the fact of the matter is that more people will see, say, Basel Switzerland or Basel Miami than they will this show, and that’s challenging, to say the least.

Do you see fashion glomming onto the art world? Basel Miami has basically turned into a party scene.
I have to say that I don’t know the last time I actually went to an art fair. I mean, I’m in New York for a week, but I know goddamn well I’m not going to Frieze. I would love to if they would let me in with, like, five other people. But I don’t actually like seeing art in that scenario because it really is social—extremely social, and it kind of waters down the experience of what it is that you’re standing in front of. I’m sure for other people that’s a nice thing, to see art at a party, but I typically don’t—unless I absolutely have. I don’t do it.

Sunrise Sunset—does that refer to the fall of empires?
I think that Sunrise Sunset is a title that’s super-open. And I kind of like that. It could easily refer to the fall and rise of an entire empire. It could be a bookend. It could be my entire autobiographical archaeology of my day-to-day existence. I drive off the mountain into the city at sunrise. I drive out of the city, up to the mountain at sunset. I have at least an hour, an hour and a half in the car where there’s nothing but contemplation of what it is that I’m doing. And that again just seemed perfect for a show like this. It’s sort of a mixed bag. It is this rise and fall of the contemplation of what it is that I’m actually working on.

Sterling Ruby

Photo: TROUGH (4837); 2014; Bronze; 133.985 x 110.49 x 233.68 cm / 52 3/4 x 43 1/2 x 92 in

There seems to be a very domestic reference in this show. Can you speak a little bit about that and how it’s crept into your work?
The stove in and of itself—I think that I initially started making these stoves on a much smaller scale, and there were two reasons: I grew up on a farm until I was 18, and our entire source of heating for the house was always the wood-burning stove, so at a certain age I was bound to the chores of chopping wood, stacking wood, and starting and maintaining a fire. In ceramics, I started to think specifically about the truncation of things within the stove. What does the fire mean? What is the alchemy of it? And so I really wanted to make my own stove. We started importing these cast-iron stoves that were similar to the ones that my parents had on the farm, and we were burning scrap lumber, we were burning all of our documents, doing all of these things in the studio. After a while I realized that I wanted to make my own. I didn’t want to rely on other people’s cast-iron stoves, so we started making really small ones just out of cardboard and then casting them. And then I realized I wanted to make a monument to that. So this one is, in particular, a large-scale, fully operational stove.

The large fabric pieces of the flag, the fabric paintings, and fabric collages are really based on quilts. I’ve always been somewhat obsessed…they were one of my early visuals, because we lived so close to Lancaster and I had a lot of friends who were Amish. I saw quilts before I saw any sort of Pop art or geometric art. Over time, I really started to like Japanese boro textiles, which are a kind of transformation from the utilitarian to the aesthetic. With boro textiles, when your clothing gets too worn out from working too hard, you turn it into a quilt or a tapestry. It’s this exchange between something that was once used as clothing for something that is looked at as an aesthetic. And I’m doing the exact opposite—we tend to dye, bleach, and paint fabric canvas in the studio almost every day. Then I hand the scraps to my patternmaker and I have her make clothing. I think in many ways I like the universalness of not only formalism but also recognizable icons of use, value, and associations. I like that. Not everything has to be a complete abstract.

Sterling Ruby

Photo: FLAG (4791); 2014; Bleached and dyed canvas and elastic; 431.8 x 675.6 cm / 170 x 266 in

Is bleaching for you about creating an absence, or is it about putting something onto fabric?

I think of bleach in both of those terms. I like the deduction of bleach—I like that it’s not an additive, it’s a negative. And that’s something Raf [Simons] and I have talked about at length. Also, bleaching is a destructive process, so you’re riding an extremely fine line of things being broken down and deconstructed. Sometimes the pieces get completely chewed through, and other times we time it just right so that we get these really beautiful washes that are almost like photographic processes that turn into negatives.

Has working with Raf informed your practice in other ways?

I think the project with Raf has confirmed the idea of not following an allegiance to hierarchies within art. Why should making clothing be anything better or worse than making a painting? I understand from the art community why there are differentiations between [those], but I think both Raf and I are huge fans of the idea of working within a Bauhaus mentality, one that has no barriers within genres.

Ruby Sterling

Photo: The Cup (4791); 2013; Foam, urethane, wood and spray paint; 233.7 x 293.4 x 223.5 cm / 92 x 115 1/2 x 88 in

You seem to be able to really draw out the plasticity in everything you work with. What is your approach when you’re bringing a new medium into your practice?
I think a lot of the time it’s already there. Maybe it was something that evolved out of another body of work, or something that was kind of trial and error with something previously. Most of the time that’s how it happens. It’s like working on something that is determined already and trying to work with that, and maybe failure of working with that turns into an entire other body, that the material jumps from one to the other. And then sometimes it’s really a matter of looking at it from a different perspective; that there exists something that’s made out of a certain material that is either functional or already exists, but I kind of like the tonality of it or the meaning of it.

Your pieces are obviously very spatial. Is it challenging to create these in your studio and conceive of how it’s going to exist in a gallery setting?

That’s always the hardest thing. I enjoy the installation process, but I’m not a very good preplanner, and I know some artists work off of a diagram, but that never works for me. I need to be in this phase to see the sights and see the crescendos, to see the breathing room between works. The ceiling here in the 18th Street space is considerably difficult because it’s almost like having a train track or a bridge above you. Even though we made a diagram on a computer and tried to plan, it just never works. It doesn’t work. You can’t do it. For a show like this, it makes me anxious to bring everything in and think that maybe we’ll edit half of it out. We don’t really know. I have to give credit to my gallery for this, because I think it’s a leap of faith to let an artist show all of his work. Maybe three pieces are going to go in. I don’t know until we actually start moving things around. But for me it’s a super-special challenge to get everything in and start to look at it—the demographics of viewing things both on the wall and in the space.

Your work looks at institutions and at the same time a lack thereof, with punk influences. How do you think those forces end up playing out?

I don’t always like making something that’s so didactic that it takes one side or the other. What I like the most is when a piece comes together and it alludes to this scenario of self-reflexive acknowledgment of the negative. I think that the pieces, for a lot of people, are very American. They’re very male. But at the same time, I would hope that you could read the self-reflexivity and criticism of that in the scale and you don’t have tropes or colors or the masculinity of it. I don’t think there’s always proportion to such a degree that it’s reveling. Sometimes it’s reveling in the negative of it.

Photos: © Sterling Ruby; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

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Dept. of Culture