ICA/Boston and ICA Miami 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 the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami) announced the co-organization of Sterling Ruby, the first comprehensive museum survey of American/Dutch artist Sterling Ruby (b. 1972). Opening at ICA Miami on November 7, the survey features over 75 works that demonstrate the relationship between material transformation in Ruby’s practice and the rapid evolution of contemporary 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. The process of combining disparate elements is central to Ruby’s material reclamations, which serve as a form of autobiographical and cultural archeology. 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 with American culture, this show proposes new ways to consider Ruby’s 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 today. It addresses a wide range of issues—from the political underbelly of the landscape to material investigations of handmade traditions—and in the process, Ruby reexamines notions of beauty, value, and the history of sculpture itself. In our divisive era, 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 U.S. 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 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.
Sterling Ruby begins with the artist’s collages, drawings, and prints, which continuously explore the personal and cultural subconscious through a kind of “illicit merger.” Early in his career, Ruby often employed two-dimensional mediums to elaborate on recurrent subjects including the nation’s prisonindustrial 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 additionally considers the tension of expression and repression that defines our recent history, particularly through Ruby’s monumental urethane 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. 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 dye 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 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 the artist’s probing of figurative forms, gesture and immediacy, and display hand-worked characteristics, but are not intended to serve functional purposes. The Basin Theology series, on view in this exhibition, contain key elements of previous destroyed ceramics that have broken in the kiln, an example of Ruby’s spirit of invention and reuse.
Another of Ruby’s signature materials, spray paint, is represented across several series and represents the artist’s blurring of high and low culture. Influenced by graffiti culture, works from the artist’s series of monumental spray-painted canvases, entitled SP, are reminiscent of landscapes—frequently evoking 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 seen in developed industrial landscapes or during devastating wildfires in California.
Ruby’s soft sculptures—formed from various fabrics stuffed with fiberfill—occupy a complex place within the artist’s practice, invoking craft and flag-making as well as horrific cartoons. As a result of growing up in a family of seamstresses and his exposure to quilting communities in rural Pennsylvania during his childhood, Ruby began reusing scraps of leftover textiles to create his VORTEX, LEATHERETTE, QUILT and FLAG series. 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) (2019), 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—architectural monuments invoking violence through their gun-like forms. Made from scrap sheet metal and reinforcement bars, these forms further demonstrate Ruby’s ethos of material reuse. Also included are Ruby’s STOVES, drawing inspiration from his childhood experience of tending his family’s wood-burning stove in rural Pennsylvania, as well as from foundry workers’ furnaces. 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 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 paintsplattered jeans, installed as a mobile—a form associated with modern artist Alexander Calder. Taking up classic tropes of modernism throughout his work, Ruby aims to intervene in historical forms of imagemaking and manufacture in order to test their urgency today.