In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) afforded Sterling Ruby his first solo museum presentation. Just three years after receiving his MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Ruby had already produced a prodigious body of work encompassing a dizzying array of media including painting, sculpture, photography, video, prints, collage, and ceramics. With so much work to his credit, in such a short time, the accompanying catalogue more closely resembled a mid-career survey than an artist’s first museum exhibition. The works on view, newly made for the exhibition, were clustered together in and around a double-height atrium—a row of engraved, rectilinear formica sculptures, some of them topped with thickly glazed ceramics, crimson fiberglass drips, or blocks of swirling pools of cast resin, juxtaposed with enormous, vibrant red stalagmites of poured urethane over wood armatures and surrounded by large, abstract spray paintings and soft fabric drips. Seductive in their colors, textures, and sensual forms, the works were problematic nonetheless: enigmatic letters, words, and phrases scrawled on the sculptures like graffiti turned them into urban koans, inviting deeper consideration. Collages nearby provided the visitor with a glimpse into the multifarious image bank the artist regularly mined—more thoroughly chronicled in the exhibition catalogue—which included prisons, crafts, Minimalist geometric structures, natural forms, knives, domestic interiors, transsexuality, banal landscape paintings, graffiti, and the casual images of sex and violence that pervade contemporary life. The dense installation evoked the exhibition’s title, SUPERMAX 2008, referring to the prisons that supposedly hold the most violent inmates, in both its overwhelming presence and the sense of confinement and control it imposed on visitors. The exhibition also provided a thorough and palpable summary of the issues—artistic, philosophical, sociological, political, and personal—that preoccupied Ruby’s work to that point.
Since that exhibition, the artist has continued to expand his body of sculptural work in a stunning variety of formal, material, and conceptual directions. From poured polyurethane works to monumental ceramic collages weighing hundreds of pounds, to soft sculptures incorporating inexpensive fabrics that the artist often dyes or bleaches himself, to Minimalist compositions of urethane and formica, Ruby’s works cross traditional divisions between media and often straddle the line between high and low, fine art and craft, luxury goods and common necessities.
Incorporating a range of modernist strategies to make expressive works of art with materials typically associated with utility and affordability, Ruby’s work addresses a range of issues—from societal to personal—and reexamines notions of beauty, value, and the meaning of sculpture itself. Ruby’s expansive practice offers a reassessment, critique, and reinvention of a variety of Modernist strategies. The works appear to test the persistence of Modernism’s utopian idealism in the face of harsh contemporary realities like poverty, violence, and urban decay. Ruby’s ACTS series of formica and dyed urethane blocks reconsiders the conceptual and esthetic purity of Minimalism with materials that suggest a run-down domestic or industrial interiors, often inscribed with obscure words and acronyms reminiscent of graffiti. The SCALES, mobiles balancing abstract painted forms and found objects, challenge the whimsy and buoyancy of Calder’s invention with the random detritus of contemporary life. Fabric and fiberfill sculptures maintain the approachability of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures while suggesting darker readings. With a practice that encompasses such a variety of sculptural modes—some closely associated with fine art (welded steel, cast bronze, found object construction, architectonic compositions) and others still traditionally related to craft (ceramics, fiber arts, clothing)—Ruby offers a singular exemplar in his engagement of the expanded field.
Such a practice emerges from a natural affinity for the objects developed in Germany after World War I, and its nonhierarchical approach to the arts. This attraction to things that are, or once were, useful led Ruby to make the STOVES. Inspired by the rudimentary furnaces that foundry workers in China make out of metal scraps during the winter to keep warm, as well as his experiences with kilns for ceramics and his family’s cast iron stove, Ruby’s STOVE sculptures honor their simplicity and functionality. “I was very excited about the idea of making a fully functioning stove as a utilitarian sculpture,” Ruby noted, “but from a theoretical tangent.” Like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal that he exhibited under the title Fountain (1917), the presentation of a stove used for warmth as an object of aesthetic consideration changes how one thinks about it—or, as Duchamp put it, creates a new thought for that object. One considers not only its literal uses but also its social and communal functions. Ruby’s stoves take various shapes that suggest a variety of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic associations and lend each one a unique personality
This recognition of the value of each thing for what it is, what it was, and what it can be distinguishes Ruby’s sculptural practice. Like archeological relics, his objects carry with them not only their own histories, but also the residue of their use and significance in our lives. Harnessing the specific physical qualities, societal associations, and metaphorical possibilities of each thing, and merging it with other evocative objects and materials in myriad combinations, Ruby creates a new realm of matter that causes us to reconsider those objects, the roles they play in the world, and what we understand—and don’t understand—about the experience of being human. around him.