A precocious 12-year-old once rolled her eyes at me after I described an artist as a “Renaissance man.” When I asked her what was wrong, she said “I hate that phrase. It’s so vague, it’s meaningless. I know people think it means someone like Leonardo, but why not just say that? Most Renaissance men did not excel at more than one thing, if that.” I promised my granddaughter then that I would quit using that cliché and try to find something more appropriate. Four years later, I am breaking that promise.
There is no better way to describe Sterling Ruby, who works in sculpture, painting, clothing design, stove ware, public art, salvaged submarine art, ballet set design, textiles, ceramics, video, urethane casts, and several other forms. Most of what he does is supersized, though this eclectic, large-scale practice is rooted in his approach to smaller scale ceramic sculptures—the focus of “Sterling Ruby: Ceramics,” organized by the Des Moines Art Center and on view at the Museum of Arts and Design through March 17, 2019. These works may be heavily indebted to craft, but they rebel against its confines. Immersed in formal codes and gestures that signal transgression and transference, they feel both familiar and alien, reveling in process, materiality, and accident. Ruby rolls, punches, assembles, and caresses clay by hand and machine to arrive at basins or vessel-like containers that hold the debris of previous firings. Like a reverse archaeologist, he embeds the relics of his experiments within the final object. For him, clay functions as a personal “monument material.”
The physicality of these ceramic pieces reflects a characteristic common to all of Ruby’s work, which is rife with violence, whether in terms of process or subject matter. (It’s been reported that he began working in clay as a form of therapy, and he confirms that his introduction to the medium came from an unexpected source: “I had a good friend 20 years ago who was studying to be an art therapist…one of [her classes] was clay kneading. I thought it was so obvious, so irrelevant from an analytical point to view. She thought it was a real way to help people through trauma. I was not so sure about that, so I started taking a class with her. She was right.”) He identifies the violent streak in his work as a possible reaction to his disruptive youth. His mother was Dutch, and his father was from Baltimore. Ruby was born in Germany, before the family moved to Baltimore. By the time he was eight years old, his parents had decided to drop off the grid: “They had a notion that they were going to be farmers, to live off the land. That never really happened.” Instead, they joined an extremely conservative community in York County, Pennsylvania, a place called New Freedom that Ruby remembers as “neither new nor free,” an “aggressive” place, with preconceived notions of gender roles and other ideas outside the mainstream. He says that was probably when he began to notice the role that aggression plays in society.
After graduating from high school in 1990, he joined a union construction crew in Washington, DC. For over two years, he mostly dug holes and shot grades. Though he occasionally worked with engineers, his job was labor intensive. After losing his taste for rural life, it made sense for Ruby to work in DC and go to concerts at night (local punk and Southern California bands), but he admits, it became rather depressing: “Mostly I was sleeping in my car and hanging out with guys on the crew who I thought were in their 70s but were actually only in their 40s. My body hurt a lot.”
Because he had “extremely poor grades” in high school and no one in his family had ever gone on to higher education, he never really thought about college as an option. After his construction stint, that changed. His mother had a close friend who was a wildlife illustrator and taught at an art school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She persuaded Ruby to put together a portfolio, which consisted mostly of drawings of barns and cats. He “got into a school that was very strict and foundation based. We didn’t really go beyond Philip Pearlstein.” He got a good education, however, studying with an group of teachers he found excellent, all artists in Lancaster County.
Tradition and rebellion go hand in hand in Ruby’s work, and they have from the beginning: traditional art training paired with punk politics that he describes as “aggressive but constructively, thoughtfully so—not the way aggression factored into the rural community.” His installations and sculptures reflect an unusual ability to subsume dichotomies and trap oppositions in perpetual stalemate. He had a Eureka moment when he started to put all of these things together through the lens of schizophrenia: “When I first started to understand my time and place, I realized it was a very confusing time to be making art. Most of what I was taught was from an ’80s, postmodern point of view in art history, philosophy, psychology, and theory. I thought that was cynical, and I wanted something more sincere. I felt that these two polarities were schizophrenic and began to feel that my manic behavior had this element to it. When I realized I could place this element of my work, it made sense to me.”
That unknown element in Ruby’s work—the making—turned out to be what troubled him about the ’80s artists and theorists that he studied and admired, and what set him apart. He “began wondering about many of the things that they insinuated were done in art—at least with a type of expression or a type of gesture—which there was no way of doing anymore. Beyond that, most of the curricula that I waded through, most of the Minimalist and performance curricula, was without much joy.” Not many artists who delve so deeply into theory produce an epic body of work like Ruby’s. Acknowledging that the combination is rare, he explains the back-and-forth balance of his position: “I found very early on that my time was not necessarily studio time. I always just enjoyed making work. I don’t totally disagree with this thought structure that feeds into the shunning of making work, or of even having a studio practice.”
Surprisingly, contemporary history has had little or no influence on his political expressions. Instead, he says it was just a general sense of “malaise and depression.” For him, the greatest malaise is consumption, and that—though he hadn’t necessarily thought about it—probably influenced his use of recycled materials and found objects. Ruby likens consumption to “cannibalism, consuming things in a self-destructive manner, enveloping oneself in everything bad and good.” Over time, this equation led him to the notion of using archaeology to trace a lineage across everything he had done: “Very early, when I first had the space to do it in a studio, I began keeping everything, all the mistakes and outcasts. I wanted to be surrounded by parts of everything I had previously done over time.”
He first began incorporating rejects into his ceramics as an “informative explosion” of past things in the new. Having grown up in a craft-oriented, Amish region, he realized early on that his visual vocabulary derived mostly from crafts. He recalls that “quilts were bright spots in a mostly gray landscape of barns. I began thinking about them as a form of archaeology. That’s when I got introduced to the Gee’s Bend quilting community. The work was similar to Japanese boro art. It was basically clothing that would be worn until it became too worn out, and then it would be returned to the household where it would become an aesthetic object. I liked that something utilitarian would be turned into something more visual.”
When Ruby began to make serious money, he started collecting quilts and wondered why he hadn’t paid more attention to them when he was growing up. His first purchases, “which seemed like a good way to live with the things from your past,” were illustrative Amish quilts and Gee’s Bend quilts. He believes that quilt making in America is much like rug making in the Middle East. Different regions have created their own personal visual languages, their own dialogues. Ruby’s bronze sculptures have been described as a form of quilt making, an observation that pleases him: “I liked that Picasso used to talk about collage as a new hybrid. That principle of collage can be applied to all kinds of things I have made.”
When Ruby applied his semi-famous phrase “illicit mergers” to collage, he expressed a similar understanding. He approaches bronze, and most other materials, in much the same way he does ceramics, acknowledging the stages of production and incorporating what most artists would consider reject material. He does not, for example, grind welds. In bronze casting, an artist makes a positive and sends it to a foundry, where it is usually chopped up into pieces and spot-welded back together. Those welds are meant to disappear in the finished work, but Ruby wants to retain the evidence of a process that resembles collage. Unlike most artists, “who want to cover that up and make it look like a whole piece, a duplication of the positive in a new material,” he likes “to let that remain visible, in a Frankenstein way. Let people see what all was cut apart and put back together.”
A fascination with kilns and their role in ceramics led him to stove making. Kilns “forge a malleable material like clay into something hardened and monumental. I started remembering how my life related to this process.” From the time he was eight, he chopped wood for the family’s cast iron stove, which served as their source of heat all winter. He started with piecemeal stoves; his last four were monumental, 18-foot constructions shown at the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, where they were re-fired every three hours. Stoves, foundries, and kilns are the best representations of (and the instruments behind) one of his most revealing tag phrases—“when malleability becomes frozen.” That idea also drives his interest in urethane, a really nasty material. Ruby appreciates the fact that urethane has the same basic qualities and capabilities as clay: “I wasn’t casting urethane, I was pouring it, usually in a two-part compound. You have five to 10 minutes to pour it before it becomes a solid. So, it was much like ceramics, except you can do urethane on a more monumental scale.” His urethane works are mostly in the 12- to 22-foot range. He pours them to resemble stalagmites and stalactites: “I can pour them upside down, then turn them over and change one into the other.”
Ruby’s textile works might seem out of place in his oeuvre—until you remember his approach. College work in performance art led to an interest in ballet. Later on, he didn’t pursue the connection, but it came to him nonetheless: “I met two marvelous choreographers, Ben Millepied and Justin Peck, and they asked me to work with them on traveling set designs with my textile works, and that led to a few other projects.” Ballet has given Ruby an outlet for his Bauhaus-inspired beliefs in non-specific materials and non-specific outputs of art. It’s also given him a chance to work outside the studio, just like his design work for Calvin Klein and projects with his longtime friend Raf Simons, Creative Director of Christian Dior.
Even public art, which Ruby appreciates for its “vulnerable reaction,” fits under his rubric of malleability because the process of reception and response is never frozen. He loves the public reaction and interaction: “If the public doesn’t like it, they will let you know. Sometimes if they do like it, they want to add something of their own—like skateboarders, who often make public art into a hang-out location. I like how public art interacts with people, in a vulnerable way.”
Perhaps Ruby’s best-known project is “Supermax,” which uses the California penal system to address the “polarity of oppression and expression,” with incarceration serving as an allegory. “Floored” by the idea of a supermax prison, which houses the most secure levels of custody from general populations, Ruby began equating it to everything, including “Minimalist forms and sincerity in art, but in an abstract way.” He directed his focus to the huge prison population in California, a state that frequently leads the nation in terms of the number of prisons and prisoners. Since Ruby started “Supermax” eight years ago, his crew has chartered helicopters and videotaped facilities from an aerial perspective. They have covered about 80 percent of California’s prisons in this “giant cataloguing project.” Ruby is most amazed at how much supermax prisons resemble large cities unto themselves: “As you fly over them, they begin to look like didactic Rorschach buildings. They appear to be sequences doubling. Most of these places involve flying over huge cornfields and forests and vast empty spaces. And then there it is, this massive architectural form.” Even after more than 120 hours of footage, he is still working his way up to his magnum opus—Pelican Bay.
More politically direct than Ruby’s ceramics, the “Supermax” works, which include defaced and defiled Minimalist sculptures, explore the same formal qualities of repression and containment. And like all of his work, the various components of this project constitute a provocative critique of oppressive power structures, no matter what their nature. He plans to keep balancing impulse and control in new works while expanding his repertoire of unlikely materials—he recently added salvaged submarines to that list. Openness is all: “I am fortunate that things I make sell well enough that I can do other things. I have 15 employees in my studio and office. Every two years or so, something creeps into what we’ve been doing and becomes a new series.” That’s a Renaissance man in the third millennium.
“Sterling Ruby: Sculpture,” the first museum exhibition to survey his three-dimensional work, is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, February 2–April 21, 2019.