Sterling Ruby is one of those artists that could blow up into a rock artstar, a ruggedly attractive 40-year-old with a rep for making bold, masculine work that big galleries can’t get enough of. But ignore his reputation and take a good look at his work: the intensely emotive spray-can abstract paintings, the monolithic sculptural girders, the video installations of men masturbating, the room filled with stuffed bright fabric objects, the textured ashtray-brittle ceramics, the blood-red or glossy black dripping pipes covered with foam and urethane. There are moments that reference Americana but then move to abstraction; touches of minimalism that disappear under layers of dirt and mud. It grabs you by the stomach with a visceral approach that has broad appeal: as well as exhibiting his work in every major space in LA, he has been shown around the world, from New York’s MoMA to the Honart Museum in Tehran to Stockholm’s Bonniers Konsthall, and he created a denim line with Raf Simons in 2009. But behind the soft work, physical-heavy performance films, metal works and ashtrays, there is a serious engagement with theory; few others could combine interests in LA gang subculture and the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Ruby’s practice is underpinned with philosophy and theory for those that want it, and provides a very immediate physicality for those who don’t.
What are you making for your upcoming show at Hauser & Wirth in London? it’s a big space...
The title of the show is EXHM, an acronym I use for the word ‘exhumation’. I have been thinking a lot about excavations and dig sites...Autobiography and archaeology, where things are left to rest and how they get dug up and reassessed. The show will be all over the place and somewhat packed. There will be urethane, ceramic and fabric sculptures, cardboard and fabric collages. I’ll edit down during the install.
You reference the ‘super maximumsecurity’ prisons that have proliferated in the US over the past 30 years in your Supermax series. How did you become interested in them?
I look at supermax as the closest thing I can imagine to hell. I originally saw the American prison system as an allegory for the end of correction, a future of detainment, and I channelled a lot of anger through those works; now I feel more sad about it. Lately I have been correlating prisons to burial grounds, hence the title EXHM.
What interests you about masculinity? I’m thinking of the performative aspect of your video installation The Masturbators.
The Masturbators, for me, exemplified the shame that is at the heart of contemporary masculinity. A lot of the feminist theory I read as an art student triggered thinking about how to reconcile a position as a male in a contemporary context. If male virility is to be taken as the measure of masculinity then what happens when it fails? I have always admired this one line from Lorna A Rhodes' Total Confinement: ‘The secret of violent men is that they feel ashamed – deeply ashamed over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them.’ (Rhodes was quoting US psychiatrist James Gilligan’s book series Violence.) A hidden shame does seem to rule a lot of bad behaviour. Capturing these performers on video heightened that sense of shame.
Why does the American flag play such a pivotal role in your work?
It’s almost as if you shouldn’t use the American flag or even colours associated with it in an art context because it is so completely loaded and complicated.
How has working in Los Angeles informed your work?
In a way it is hard to say at this point, because I’ve been here so long. After all of these years I am still enamoured with LA. I still find the city’s crazy pathology influential.
Why did you start using spray cans?
I continuously saw spraypaint being used to mark territory by gangs in the streets of LA. Drug warfare played out in aesthetics. A power struggle of tagging that almost always became atmospheric and abstract due to the intense back and forth of rival gang members. The desire to make paintings was an absolute reaction to seeing graffiti and territorial disputes writ large in the streets, almost as a case study. Despite being an interdisciplinary artist I feel that I have a large investment in painting. I found it almost impossible to ignore my generation’s continued struggle to find ways to make a meaningful painting. I like that I have found a way to make spraypaint abstract.
What do you find interesting about malleability? It’s an idea that seems to come up in your clay ceramics and stuffed sculptures.
I have often spoken about the truncation of malleability in reference to my ceramics. There is something powerful about the firing of the kiln: the work becoming permanent and fixed after the firing, like a monument to what it once was and will never be again. The soft sculptures are almost the exact opposite – they are never fixed or solid, always malleable.
How did working alongside Mike Kelley influence what you do?
I was Mike’s teaching assistant for the last two years that he taught at Art Center College of Design (in Pasadena). We spoke predominantly about art and how we both saw the role of the artist. Mike thought that being an artist was like being a criminal. This really resonated with me, but at the same time I felt like you really shouldn’t inhabit that kind of psychological space forever.
Tell us about your current collage works and the process involved.
As I was saying earlier, I’ve been thinking a lot about burial grounds and archaeological-dig sites. I started reusing materials from inside the studio, treating it like an excavation. I have been making cardboard collages that start with pieces of cardboard that we lay down in the studio to protect the floor from the urethane used in my sculptures. So they are often covered with dirt, footprints and urethane. I have also been making fabric collages. I was trying to make quilts, using fabric scraps, rags from the studio, other people’s worn or thrown out clothing and blankets, but they ended up as this fucked-up hybrid of painting, quilting and collage.
There’s a real sense of muddying in your work – the smudged black palette in your paintings, the mixed colour drips in your video Dihedral. What do you like about that sense of something almost dirty?
I like embodying a transient personality that would want to contaminate things in order to trespass certain boundaries.
What do you find interesting about playing and pushing ideas around minimalism? You seem to add something really textured or chaotic to what are sometimes really restrained forms.
I like fucking with the austerity and perfection of minimalism.
The 'R + D’ section on your website is really fascinating. Why did you decide to share your points of interest there?
I wanted the website to be an archive, not only of my artwork, but also the things that I look at, like source material and research and production shots from the studio. I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of a website to begin with, but the longer I worked on it in private the more I started to view it as a work in and of itself. It felt vulnerable and intimate to give the public access to all of this content.
Until May 4, EXHM, Hauser & Wirth, London W1J