Once described as “Gangsta Rothkos,” Ruby’s paintings enact the collision between lightness and darkness, natural and urban, pushing landscape towards an obnoxious beauty.
Sterling Ruby is an “unnaturally” gifted artist, one who has always been keenly aware that his innate talent for painting is a force to push back against because it can obstruct the process of making art that is profoundly original. Supremely conscious of the intoxicating pleasures and addictive qualities of painting, he has harnessed this talent by making “obnoxiously beautiful” works that are filled with light, yet remain impenetrably dark.
One might say that Ruby began his studies as a painter who did not paint. In fact, in the 1990s, painting was so far off of his radar screen that after he graduated in 2001 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where painting’s grand history persisted, he moved to California to study with Mike Kelley in the graduate fine arts program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. This burgeoning program was the smallest, most underfunded and least appreciated department in the school, which was and remains internationally regarded for its commercial arts and industrial design programs. It was a program where freedom was predicated on having nothing left to lose. By the late 1990s, it had become one of the most important visual arts programs in the Los Angeles area.
Smart, ambitious and interested in a wide range of practices (including time-based mediums), Ruby served as Kelley’s teaching assistant at Art Center. Kelley’s interest in popular culture and music, along with his psychologically unbridled creativity, proved an unnatural attraction for the young artist. And while Kelley ran the world of intermedia studies, it was Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s theory-driven painting program that encouraged Ruby to push back against his profound love of materiality by rigorously following his ideas to their conclusion, even in spite of the opportunities awakened in the process of making.
Very quickly and visibly, Ruby reinvented himself as an LA artist who, from the beginning, saw himself as both locally and globally engaged. He was the first among a new generation of LA artists to gain prominence simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York, Germany and Japan. Although he produced works in a variety of mediums, by 2007, with his “SP” paintings (Spray Paintings), he revealed that he was also a painter—specifically, a painter willing to take on both urban light and the gods of postwar American painting. In truth, he had been painting all along—through works on paper, film, field-like cast-resin works, and painterly applications to Minimalist-inspired sculptures. In his loving assault on Minimalism, he was among the few artists of his generation to address both the prefabricated Minimalism of the East Coast and the Finish Fetish cast resin of the West.
In April 2008, Ruby presented a sophisticated body of large and fully resolved paintings in a group exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York, which became the talk of the town. In these paintings, he merged his interest in street culture, urban life and hip-hop with his appreciation of postwar painting, particularly the work of Mark Rothko. (The works were famously described in a 2008 review by the New York Times critic Roberta Smith as “Gangsta Rothkos”).
In these paintings Ruby seemed to unravel the Gordion knot of Rothko’s infamous acceptance and then rejection of an important commission to create a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York “where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off”—a commission in which he had hoped to make works so profoundly dark, powerful and disturbing that they would “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room” (Jörg Heiser, “Rack the Jipper”). This confrontation between lightness and darkness became a hallmark of Ruby’s landscape paintings.
These paintings reflect the influence of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, Abstract Expressionism and spray-can painting. Ruby approaches the landscape as a reflection of the society that lives in, builds on and abuses it. This bleak vision owes a great debt to Rothko’s transcendent romanticism. But while Rothko remained committed to the brushstroke and the accumulation of marks over an extended period of time, Ruby gravitates to the street art practices of the urban area in which he lives and works, and which he sees daily from his car—layer upon layer, history upon history, tag upon tag, subfamily, family and collective groups taking parts of the urban environment block by block as if in a chess game with no end in sight. Ruby’s use of the spray technique also evokes the work of Ed Ruscha. Coming from a commercial background, Ruscha has used the airbrush throughout his career, which allows a significantly more controlled application of paint than the regular brush. In addition, and surely of interest to Ruby, Ruscha has been deeply engaged in the flaws, mistakes, and ragged edges of the application of sprayed paint and has often presented a very dark vision of both the natural and the urban/industrial landscape—unnatural landscapes distressed by human intervention.
Ruby’s own history reflects this collision of natural and urban/industrial landscapes. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he experienced the tensions of an agricultural society that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had begun to butt up against the industrial world. When oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century, new industries developed that transformed the landscape—a phenomenon that characterized the development of the North American continent in general as settlers continually pushed West.
Several generations of American artists have engaged with this process of development. Especially relevant to the work of Ruby, the Hudson River School and the Luminist painters, particularly artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Frederic E. Church, not only portrayed the American landscape in its untarnished form, but subtly and sometimes dramatically revealed the encroachment of people, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization. Their successors in the twentieth century created abstractions that captured the idealism of that period, when the sense of possibilities for the future with human intervention seemed unlimited.
In his most monumental landscape painting, SP272 (1) SP272 (2) (2014), Ruby pairs two pictures of unnatural landscapes, which can be displayed side by side or on opposite walls. The two pictures are infused with Day-Glo pinks and greens, colors on the opposite poles of the color spectrum. These fluorescent colors etch a sky at dawn and dusk that appears to have been deeply damaged through particulate matter, like coal dust. Perversely, there is something extraordinarily beautiful about a sunrise or sunset over even the most environmentally damaged areas; destruction creates something that can’t be found in nature alone. Indeed, creation and destruction have been an important aspect of Ruby’s practice from the beginning, as in the work of artists who preceded and in some ways inspired him—Kazuo Shiraga and Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Shozo Shimamoto. Like these artists, Ruby has always understood that creation and destruction are inextricably tied—politically, socially, and in the day-to-day practice of the studio.
Ruby’s interest in pairing oppositions, epitomized by SP272 (1) SP272 (2), no doubt drew him to Kelley and his deeply psychological approach to oppositionality—good and evil, male and female, popular and academic. Also, Ruby would have been familiar with the duality that Robert Rauschenberg employed in the pairing of Factum I and Factum II (both 1957), which were reunited in the exhibition “Rauschenberg: Combines“ at MOCA in 2006. Rauschenberg’s capturing of the unconscious through time and gesture, and his foundational undermining of it through duplication, resonates with the extraordinary control and deliberateness by which Ruby duplicates not just subject matter but the process of painting itself.
Finally, in SP272 (1) SP272 (2), Ruby’s panoramic landscape with its invisible horizon, cast in the darkness of dawn and dusk, is broken up by the vertical drips of tears that disrupt the pictorial field, converting what is regarded as a flaw by graffiti artists into a device for confronting the genre of landscape painting by breaking through its promise of coherence. Like paired eyes, these paintings weep, but for whom? For the earth itself, ravaged by environmental destruction and social and political collapse? For the art of painting? For the artist who made them? Like so many of Ruscha’s works, these landscapes express the paradox of living in one of the most beautiful places on earth that has been profoundly altered by its inhabitants. Here, Ruby removes painting from the realm of lush beauty and pushes it toward that of obnoxious beauty, ensuring that it never devolves into the decorative or the trivial.
Paul Schimmel is Vice President and Partner at international contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth. He previously served as Chief Curator at MOCA, Los Angeles, from 1990–2012. He recently curated the exhibition “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016” at the newly opened Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles.
Images in order of appearance: SP176, 2011; SP287, 2014; SP272 (1), 2014; SP272 (2), 2014; SP217 (5), 2012; SP262, 2013. Courtesy of Sterling Ruby Studio. Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer