homecoming

a conversation with sterling ruby

Berlin rents might be going up, but Berliners still root for gritty ideological integrity in art. Sprüth Magers’s decision to present Sterling Ruby's I Am Not Free Because I Can Be Exploded Anytime during Gallery Weekend exemplifies that commitment.

Ruby is a Los Angeles-based artist working primarily with large-scale ceramics, spray-painted canvases, poured urethane sculptures and collages. He was born in Bitburg, Germany but grew up in Baltimore and suburban Pennsylvania. His background includes a degree in agriculture and experience in construction, which he applies to the massive proportions of his physically intimidating sculptures. A sense of being overwhelmed and even threatened activates his art, which largely addresses America’s methods of containment, restraint, restriction and punishment. Supermax, his 2008 exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which evoked the feeling of being incarcerated, is the foundation for his solo show at Sprüth Magers. Here, he focuses on America’s insidious paranoia—and its use and abuse by the American government.

Ana Finel Honigman: How do you define and value freedom?

Sterling Ruby: To me, personally, freedom is always about being able to set up my own parameters and to have a private space in order to work through them. I definitely don’t see myself as an anarchist, but coming up against external limitations is where the definition of freedom becomes less abstract. Being able to work the way I do, as an artist, seems like freedom… for sure.

AFH: On ideological, not just petty logistical levels, how does America’s obsession with terrorist threats limit our profound freedom?

SR: America’s obsession with terrorism, in general, is a scapegoat for its own self-importance. What I mean is that our paranoia regarding terrorism is used to give primacy to the ideologies of America ahead of other countries. This kind of U.S. righteousness holds countries of “difference” into account for not being similar to us. We also have a real predisposition to equate fighting with freedom, which creates a situation where conflict and liberation go hand in hand with one another.

AFH: What were the circumstances when you first encountered the collaboration between Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink?

SR: I first saw these works in Munich at Sprüth Magers. Philomene Magers introduced me to this collaboration between Holzer and Pink, and I immediately fell in love with the series. Holzer is one of my all-time favourites, but her works are so clinical and polished. The Lady Pink graffiti images accompanied by Holzer’s stenciled texts seemed much dirtier, less finished, almost illicit.

AFH: Does RWB (Red, White, Blue) also involve England, France and other countries with these colours dominant in their flag? Is this show essentially referencing America, or the West in general?

RS: I suppose it could be seen as reference to those other countries, but in this instance it is an autobiographical take on being an American and associating that colour combination with American power.
For most of my youth I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and quite often I would see shirts, bumper stickers and posters that read “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.” This slogan perfectly illustrates the symbolic attachment of Americans to the colours of the flag, and again there is that implied readiness to fight . . . it has always stayed with me.

AFH: What is your ideal for government involvement in citizens’ lives?

SR: Stay out—stay out and let us crash if we need to. I suppose that’s not a real answer. My ideal for the American government is for it to allocate more funding and tax revenue towards mental and physical health, change the drug laws, raise education levels, revise prison and correctional standards, and reverse its continued escalation of funding for the military industrial complex. But this is difficult, we are such a large and diverse country, and we have come to be seen as the peacekeeper for the world, which is very schizophrenic. You know. It often seems impossible to make this kind of change in the trajectory that we have had for so many years—we’re fucked.

AFH: How have Robert Morris, Rosemarie Trockel, Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink influenced your work and world view?

SR: That’s difficult to sum up and even more difficult to give credit where credit is due. Morris defied Judd’s Minimalism by making it psychological, physical, theatrical and personal. Trockel’s work has been very important to me, she seems like the logical figure to continue the Beuys trajectory of alchemy—political, formal and healing processes of actual art making. Holzer is militant, she is unforgiving in her subject matter and I admire that a lot. Lady Pink is the exception here, I was interested in her work because of her use of spray-paint and her themes of sexuality, which you don’t see very often in graffiti. I’ve been influenced by urban environments for a while, particularly since I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. This is not street art in particular, but more street expression, what happens in the streets as survival adaptation. Lady Pink is an anomaly to what is happening now in “formal” street art. I don’t know what she’s been up to recently, but I quite like this set of collaborative work from the 80s.

AFH: What attracts you to Minimalism?

SR: My first real introduction to Minimalism was in grad school at Art Center, primarily through Donald Judd’s writing, which seemed hierarchical. I understood Judd’s interest in laying out the initial discourse, which was a foundation of simple industrialised objects or sculptures with no personality. Objects that were realised without the actual hand of intervention, this was also similar to Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood. Judd seemed to be responding negatively to Abstract Expressionism.

I started to think about simple minimalist forms in urban environments and how often I saw them demarcated, as a kind of existential “tagging”—you know, citizens trying to gain footing and legacy by placing their name on something with object presence… within their own community. Of course in Los Angeles this was primarily a gang-initiated activity—claiming that a certain territory belonged to you. For me it seemed to be similar to Judd’s possessive strategy 30 years prior. It is all about territory.

AFH: How does Berlin compare to L.A.?

SR: I’m not sure, I suppose that they are both inexpensive and somewhat sprawling. They both seem like easy artist cities. Germany seems to have a similar artist and education connection to Los Angeles—artists still teach.

AFH: How do you respond to common anti-Americanism in Europe?

SR: I completely understand it. I was born in Bitburg, Germany. My mother was from Eindhoven, Netherlands, and I still have a big “Dutch” family there that I visit frequently. I’m quite aware of the hostility that America seems to disseminate. I get it.

AFH: How does paranoia in America manifest differently from elsewhere?

SR: Well, we’re crazy—we worry about everything. There is such a tension between wanting freedom and wanting protection. We are true historical schizophrenics. Paranoia and fear serve to legitimise our actions in regard to what we produce both politically as well as culturally. I suppose that it is a good time for me to say that I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like the push and pull effect that America has had on me—it is true contemporary existentialism.

AFH: What makes political art successful?

SR: Political art only seems to be successful when it has no bias or hides its bias. I suppose that most art has an agenda, but quite frankly I don’t like art that preaches as much as I like art that calmly reveals circumstances or societal problems that most individuals ignore.

by Ana Finel Honigman

[Image: Sterling Ruby by Hedi Slimane, courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery, Paris]