Sterling Ruby has tackled everything from glazed pottery to nail polish paintings, and dealt with subjects as diverse as the American prison system, gang culture, and modern architecture – all with a rebellious, almost disrespectful approach. In Soft Work his ideas have taken the form of gigantic fabric sculptures. American flags decorates enormous vampire mouths and giant stuffed-animal-like creations hang from the ceiling like washed up carcasses.
Pillows, blankets, and quilts are transformed from comforting domestic materials into sculptural objects that suggest that safety and security are an illusion. Ruby explains the basis for Soft Work:
– To a large extent I am exploring the concept of the domesticity and masculinity with these soft works.
The character Buffalo Bill from the movie Silence of the Lambs is as an example of that sort of portrayal. His time on screen was almost always associated with the sewing machine.
– In America, masculinity is generally not associated with the fiber arts, craft or sewing. As a matter of fact the typical portrayal of the male who sews is often that of the outsider or criminal. The character Buffalo Bill from the movie Silence of the Lambs is as an example of that sort of portrayal. Buffalo Bill was a serial killer who would sew skin together to transform himself and his time on screen was almost always associated with the sewing machine.
Sterling Ruby currently lives and works in Los Angeles, but grew up in the Pennsylvanian countryside quite far from any cultured Californian metropolis. He attended primarily agriculture school and many of his friends, like other members of the community, were Amish. It was also through Amish culture that he first became familiar with textile art.
– As a kid I came across an Amish quilt in one of my friend’s homes. The quilt was so vibrant, the colors seemed to glow and the geometry, although slightly off seemed to exude a spiritual draw. I remember thinking how out of place this quilt was in relationship to my friend’s family who primarily dressed in drab or black colors.
Since his initial childhood fascination, Ruby has acquired many Amish quilts, as well as quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, serape blankets from Mexico, and Boro blankets from Japan.
– I love the fact that these quilts make up a hybrid of utilitarian use value while at the same time utilizing design and color.
Although you work with soft materials the installation also has a harder political touch – you reuse the American flag in a piece resembling a vampire’s mouth and you return once again to topics such as the penal system and consumerism. What is it in these subjects that gets your interest?
I have said before that America revels in a kind of cultural slumming. It is almost expected for an American to consume violence as entertainment. In terms of incarceration and consumption, it is hard to ignore that the penal system is becoming privatized and commercial in nature, and has been for some time about incarceration and not rehabilitation. Consumerism refers to a drive to spend and take in more that you need to survive. I see an inherent futility in both of these systems, which is completely allegorical to a present state within American culture.
I guess in some sense I am hoping to render certain malevolent forces inert.
Your artistic universe seems to be composed by these clashes: the humor and then the rawness in the subject matters and a sometimes almost claustrophobic view of the world…
– I do think that the soft works are acting as comical stand-ins for more serious concerns. The “Vampires” are soft hanging mouths or flags with fangs that drip with blood. I started thinking about these forms as stuffed and inanimate political figures. To me they seem to be theatrical, almost puppet-like and when suspended from the ceiling or “plopped” onto the floor they remind me of bodies.
How do you look at the role of humor in you works?
– I guess in some sense I am hoping to render certain malevolent forces inert, and in other cases making the comfortable uncomfortable.
You’ve been working as an assistant to the late Mike Kelley and one of the works in this exhibition is something of a homage to him. How would you say he has influenced you?
When I was his teaching assistant, during graduate school at Art Center in Pasadena, one conversation that we would have continually was in regard to the bias of gender within craft and domesticity. He used to say that craft was more important than contemporary art because it was based on faith, that it was predominately exchanged between loved ones and more often was given as gifts. Mike’s body of work at that time took these objects and displaced them or broke their code of generosity. He saw his role as a contemporary artist as a thief; by appropriating these things and doing so emptied them of their significance.
Text: Mirjam Johansson