A suite of ten table sculptures by Sterling Ruby are remnants of the metalwork that took place for decades in the industrial warehouse that now functions as the artist’s studio in Vernon, California. As luck would have it, Ruby unwillingly inherited the objects when the building’s previous owner left them behind, burdening the artist with their disposal. In many respects, the altered readymades bear the weight of personal histories, reflecting the names, identities and marks of individuals who used them in the past. Before becoming works of contemporary art—soon to be shown for the first time as part of the 2016 “Made in LA” biennial exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles—the tables were tasked with a regimented daily use in the production of things, and this history is something upon which Ruby’s practice depends.
Initially, the artist used the tables as surfaces for welding together other sculptures. Welding, as would be expected, figures as an important part of his sculptural practice. Eventually giving way to the artist’s particular brand of excavation, where processes and materials are endlessly “dug up and reassessed” into new forms, the status of the tables changed within the studio. As with many materials that enter into Ruby’s orbit, the tables ran their course as functional objects and became fodder for exhibition and display as finished works.
Although they have now become compositional surfaces or dimensional collages in which metal fragments and objects (a frying pan, pipes, metal scraps) merge with the utilitarian qualities and inherent minimalism of tabletops, the objects are part and parcel of the long history of manufacturing in Southern California. There is slag on the surfaces and undersides of the tables that serves as a material allusion to the layered past and conditions of labor in the city and its surrounding areas. There are signs of wear. There are inscriptions and cuts and scuffs and dents and dings. The accumulation of these gestures, these markers of time, is part of the history that Ruby’s work has tended to embrace and of which he, as an artist, is involved in unearthing.
Serving as an index of the objects’ past life—in addition to now being part of Ruby’s wider output, which is inherently tied to salvaging and reuse—the tables sit squarely as products of both art and industry. The city of Vernon’s motto is, after all, “Exclusively Industrial!”—a fitting context for the activities of Ruby’s studio. As such, the tables, which now have a history of trafficking in two distinct cultural realms, reflect the two paths that led to their concretization as works of sculpture.
While Ruby is known for steadily using and reusing the detritus and fragments that pile up around the production of collages, paintings, sculptures, and the like, the weight of the welding tables and the histories they embody establish the artist’s activities within a much broader range of time. The finished works are indebted to years of labor that predate Ruby’s alterations and the subsequent shifting of their context. These are sculptures that depend on the accretion of meaning through time. They are fragments of a greater whole that is both personal and social by nature of Ruby’s specific form of archaeology.
Aram Moshayedi is a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. He is co-curator, with Hamza Walker, January Parkos Arnall and MacKenzie Stevens, of "Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only," on view from 12 June–28 August at the Hammer Museum.