ICA Miami and ICA/Boston Co-Organize First Comprehensive Museum Survey of Sterling Ruby
Sterling Ruby Features Over Two Decades of Artist’s Career through Painting, Collage, and Sculpture, Highlights Iconic Series Alongside Unseen Early and Recent Works
Expansive Exhibition Opens at ICA Miami this November, Opens at ICA/Boston in February 2020
Today, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA/Boston) and Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami) announced the co-organization of Sterling Ruby, the first comprehensive museum survey of American artist Sterling Ruby (b. 1972). Opening at ICA Miami on November 7, the survey features over 50 works that demonstrate the relationship between material transformation in Ruby’s practice and the rapid evolution of American culture, institutions, and labor. Spanning more than two decades of the artist’s career, the exhibition features an array of works created in various mediums, from his renowned ceramics and paintings to lesser-known drawings and installations. Curated by ICA Miami Artistic Director Alex Gartenfeld and ICA/Boston Barbara Lee Chief Curator Eva Respini, Sterling Ruby is on view at ICA Miami through February 2 and on view at the ICA/Boston February 26 through May 26, 2020.
“Though Sterling Ruby is distinguished for his prolific and experimental studio practice, there are many pressing thematic elements of his work that have yet to be fully considered,” said Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami’s Artistic Director. “By tying together the evolution of Ruby’s innovations in production and the development of his fascination in American culture, this show proposes new ways to consider Ruby’s manifold impact. Further, Sterling Ruby reflects ICA Miami’s commitment to providing an institutional platform for the most significant voices in contemporary art.”
“Ruby’s work embraces America’s icons, from the Stars and Stripes to American craft culture, even as it delves into the dark forces at play in America today. It addresses a wide range of issues—from the political underbelly of the American landscape to material investigations of American handmade traditions—and in the process, Ruby reexamines notions of beauty, value, and the history of sculpture itself. In our divisive era, and in our divided America, Ruby’s uneasy combinations of materials, forms, and ideas offers the perfect analogy for our agitated times,” said Eva Respini, the ICA/Boston’s Barbara Lee Chief Curator.
Since his earliest works, Ruby has investigated the role of the artist as outsider. Critiquing the structures of modernism and traditional institutions, Ruby addresses the repressed underpinnings of American culture and the coding of power and violence. Craft is central to his inquiry, as he explores traditions from Amish quilt-making to California’s radical ceramics tradition, shaped by his upbringing in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Organized loosely by chronology and medium, Sterling Ruby considers the artist’s explorations of these themes across the many materials and forms he has utilized throughout his practice, including many innovations.
Sterling Ruby begins with the artist’s collages, drawings, and prints, which are examples of Ruby’s frequent allusions to the fraught psyche of American culture and represent his continuous exploration of the American subconscious. In his early career, Ruby often employed these two-dimensional mediums to elaborate on specific, recurring subjects in his work, including the American prison-industrial complex and maximum-security prisons. In a large series of works, among them CDC at PDC Study (2008), Ruby combines images of prisons and pastes them on top of orange paper, referencing the color of correctional facility uniforms. The exhibition also features two-dimensional works that demonstrate Ruby’s captivation with the American home, as seen in Quilt/Body Snatchers (2004), in which he overlays a still from the B horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) on a Pennsylvania Dutch quilt.
The exhibition continues with Ruby’s monumental polyurethane works, which he began making in response to the scale limitations of ceramics. For the artist, these sculptures serve to disrupt the minimalist structures of museums—another perceived product of institutionalization—and serve as means to further explore motifs of Americana. The exhibition includes several works from Ruby’s Monument Stalagmite series, towering sculptures created by a time and labor-intensive process. This includes Monument Stalagmite/The Shining (2011), which features dripped red paint that takes on the appearance of blood and refers to an iconic scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption of Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1980).
Further exemplifying the artist’s interest in Americana and craft, Sterling Ruby includes a selection of the ceramics for which he is widely known. Influenced by his mother’s collection of pottery and dishware, Ruby’s ceramics represent ways in which the artist has probed figurative forms and brought them into the realm of sculpture, drawing from his fascination with clay’s ability to express gesture with a sense of immediacy. Though the sculptures do not serve the functional purposes associated with crafted objects, they display many hand-worked characteristics, such as in his Basin Theology series on view in the exhibition. The basins within this series often contain pieces from previous ceramics that have broken in the kiln, an example of Ruby’s frequent reuse and reclamation of materials.
Another of Ruby’s signature materials, spray paint, is represented through several series and represents the artist’s interest in blurring the distinctions between perceptions of high and low culture. Influenced by the urban graffiti of American cities, works from the artist’s series of monumental spray-painted canvases, entitled SP, are reminiscent of landscapes and frequently evoke sceneries plagued by environmental destruction. While SP131 (2010) implies the image of a vibrant sky tarnished with toxic pollution, SP242 (2013) appears as a horizon enveloped with smoke, as often seen during devastating wildfires in California.
Similarly reflecting the artist’s compulsive examination of American culture are the artist’s soft sculptures, formed from various fabrics stuffed with fiberfill. As a result of his exposure to Amish quilts in rural Pennsylvania during his childhood, Ruby began reusing scraps of leftover textiles to create his large-scale QUILT and FLAG series, which frequently reference the American flag and American quilt-making traditions. The exhibition places these works in dialogue with other soft sculptures fashioned from American-flag patterned fabric, including DOUBLE CANDLE (6992) (2019) and Double Vampire (2013). A new work created from this fabric, entitled FIGURES. PILE. (6991) (2018), displays a pile of interwoven figures that appear as a monumental corpselike form.
The exhibition additionally features Ruby’s metal works, including his MS series, gun-like forms made from sheet metal and reinforcement bars, which he began creating after his residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Further demonstrating Ruby’s ethos of material reuse, these sculptures are created from steel—the world’s recycled material. Also included in the exhibition are Ruby’s STOVES series, conceived with foundry workers’ furnaces as inspiration. The series is also an example of performative elements in Ruby’s sculpture, as he embeds hand-crafted elements on each work through rough welds, patches of liquid bronze, and patina.
Concluding the exhibition are examples from Ruby’s collage series, ECLPSE and SCALES, which both reuse residual materials found throughout Ruby’s studio. These series are examples of Ruby’s interest in reviving modernist art visuals and infusing them with reused items. For instance, SCALE (4586) (2013) and SCALE (5415) S.R. CLOR. (2015) feature disposable items, such as cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and paint-splatted jeans, installed on a mobile—a form associated with American modern artist Alexander Calder. Taking up classic tropes of modernism throughout his work, Ruby aims to intervene in historical forms of image-making and manufacture in order to test their urgency today.