Sterling Ruby's declaration of American Independence
Discover how the US artist picks purposefully difficult subjects in an attempt to confront America's troubles
When Sterling Ruby makes art, he doesn't pick easy subjects. "For me, I can pick subject matter that I know is going to be problematic, not only because it is corrupt or wrong, but also for the discomfort it produces by revealing some of the most troubling aspects of the American system," he tells curator Kate Fowle in our Contemporary Artist Series book. "It does seem important to confront America as it continues to revel in its troubles."
Those troubles, in Ruby's art, are manifold. Ruby's 2011 online scrapbook, Desktop Vol 1, reminds co-author and fellow curator Franklin Sirmans of "how much Ruby has in common with the great creators of the American nightmare."
"There’s Sarah Palin, presidential candidate in an American flag bikini (stripes on top, stars on bottom) posing with a scoped rifle," writes Sirmans. "Pillars of American literature like Mark Twain and James Baldwin are in the work too, but in your face is The Wire – the crime drama television series about endemic narcotics trade set in one of Ruby’s childhood hometowns in Baltimore, Maryland. There are guns everywhere, and sex, drugs, and violence. This is the America of reality television – the American dream run through a blender – and Ruby gives us that world in full-blown visuality with seductive materials that blind us to the evidence of deeper forces at play."
Ruby doesn't work every single reference into his sculptures, paintings and quilts, but there's enough to lose plenty of sleep over. The hypermasculinity of the US porn business is laid bare in his 2009 work, The Masturbators, in which he commissioned male porn actors to masturbate to climax, on camera, alone in an empty room, standing on colour-coded towels. The country's prison system is examined in his Supermax series of show, exhibited between 2005 and 2008 – featuring walls of visitor-area style acrylic glass, and scrappy, near-abstract, penal-themed works such as Still Life on Orange Background (2006).
Meanwhile, big soft sculptures of planes, missiles and vampires' mouths, fashioned from stars and stripes fabric, certainly gives us some insight into how Ruby – who was born on a US military base in Germany – views the country's armed conflicts.
Yet, Ruby isn't some blithe, anti-American. HIs interest in folk arts such as quilting, and his work the fashion designer Raf Simons, currently remaking Calvin Klein as an all-American brand, belies a deep love of his country. Instead, Sirmans suggests, Ruby is more like a harsh, but loving parent, unafraid to deal with the dark stuff: "Everything you have to question about this country in this moment is what Ruby has been mainlining into his work for the last ten years."
For a deeper understanding of this important American artist order a copy of our Sterling Ruby book here.