Sterling Ruby - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 14, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Incorporating personal explorations of a host of subjects ranging from waste and consumption to aberrant psychologies and hip-hop culture, Sterling Ruby has been celebrated by The New York Times as one of the most interesting artists to emerge out of the twentieth century. Bearing ‘the attitude of a grunge rocker with a head full of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud,’ Ruby explores the fragility that lies beneath our fragile social structures (K. Johnson, ‘Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana,’ The New York Times, September 2011). Comfortable with a host of media and techniques, the artist’s prolific output includes video, sculpture and ceramics as well as his signature monumental spray-paintings like the present lot, SP37. Of all the modes of production in Ruby’s practice, his paintings are the most formally abstract, playing with our perception of societal and structural dimensions. Influenced by the ubiquity of street art, the artist takes a novel approach to graffiti and spray paint, adopting a highly sophisticated treatment of material, method and surface.

    Ruby’s paintings are among his most recognisable body of work, revelling in the ephemerality of experience and the medium’s greater incrimination of authoritative bodies and systems. Born in 1972 and working in Los Angeles, the artist’s personal connection to graffiti exposes his roots in its deep visual language. Speaking about his early exposure to the sub culture, the artist said: ‘My first interest in art was actually through the punk movement, when I was 12 or so. It was a big thing for me, getting introduced to music that had an aura that looked a certain way... Getting involved with a movement that had an activity associated with it that was perhaps transgressive.’ This ‘transgression’ pervades the nuanced and elegant visual abstractions of Ruby’s hallucinatory spray paint works.

    Through a laboured application of contrasting hues of spray paint, SP37 is a pulsating optical play within the picture plane. His process is almost ritualistic in nature, creating a visceral network of hazy pigment through a repetitive application of paint. A few occasional drips across the work’s surface are the only reminders of the artist’s hand. Following in the footsteps of radicals like Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings reinvigorated traditional approaches to painting, Sterling Ruby removes ‘touch’ from the canvas surface. This post-humanist approach single-handedly references and rejects the established aesthetics of colour-field abstraction. Rather than revealing the artist’s own intervention on the painting surface, Ruby wholly transforms a symbol of teenage rebellion and urban violence into a riveting and emotional experience.

    The artist connects his artistic practice with larger societal power struggles. Drawing inspiration from the sociological implications of urban vandalism and demarcation, he associates the power struggles involved in gang behaviour with the demolishment of clear order and authority that is present in abstract art itself. ‘Artists my age are fighting the symptoms of excess. In a way, I think of the post-human as the end result of our being overwhelmed by our own history, theories, politics, etc. My work reflects the paranoia or schizophrenia of that contemporary conditioning, which makes what I do survivalist in nature’ (S. Ruby in interview with B. Walsh, Art In America, March 2011).

    Clearly inspired by the tensions inherent to the medium, Ruby deliberately uses spray paint for its intrinsic implications of violence and existential potential. After moving to Los Angeles, the artist became obsessed with understanding the culture and art of ‘tagging,’ which to him became the ultimate vision of abstraction: ‘All territorial clashes, aggressive cryptograms, and death threats were nullified into a mass of spray-painted gestures that had become nothing more than atmosphere, their violent disputes transposed into an immense, outdoor, nonrepresentational mural’ (J. Deitch, ‘The Painting Factory,’ Abstraction after Warhol, 2012, p. 190). In the same manner, Ruby’s paintings act as reconstructions of the Los Angeles street space, replicating the transitory spontaneity of the concrete jungle.

    The artist’s treatment of the canvas perfectly parallels an act of vandalism, in which the graffiti artist paints over pre-existing surfaces, contributing to a constantly evolution of the urban environment. Simulating this act of defacement and, ultimately, an act of transformation, Ruby blankets a final layer of black spray paint over the canvas’ acid-neon planes of colour. This process is an intentional assault on materials and traditional systems of power. The subtle beauty of SP37 evokes a complex and ambiguous foreshadowing of an anarchistic dissolution of these structures. This utopian vein runs throughout Ruby’s body of work, but is especially present in the artist’s paintings.

    Following this theme, the art critic Bob Nickas has described Ruby’s work as a ‘dichotomy of repression and liberation’ (B. Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting, 2009, p.220). This dichotomy runs beyond political and social critique, filtering into the artist’s very approach to aesthetics. Describing his own approach to beauty, Ruby explains the power in ambiguity: ‘I definitely feel that ‘beauty’ is a contemporary question. But I probably prefer to look at it this way, which is to view it by different standards. It’s interesting to see how beauty is represented and how different takes on beauty can be so dichotomous and different. I like to think about art as being similar to poetry: it can’t be proven. It just exists and there’s an aura about it that people get or don’t get. Beauty has to do a lot with that’ (S. Ruby in an interview with H-M. Post, Utopia Parkway, December 2009).

    Sterling Ruby’s understated, yet sumptuous abstractions in the inherently charged medium of spray paint expound the potential of art to act as social moderator. Ruby’s approach is both robust and subdued, masterfully adapting his own understanding of beauty into a sophisticated play of colour and connotation. The work also acts as a beaming symbol of transience, highlighting the nuances in its indefinite meaning. The vibrant work, through a mature manipulation and contortion of medium, belies an unfinished sensation. SP37 bears an air of the possibility, which can be taken to augur a kind of structural breakdown or the beginning of a new, tantalising future. Transforming the medium into a phantasmagorical projection, Ruby creates a world in which the medium is the message.



spray paint on canvas
244 x 213.5 cm (96 1/8 x 84 in.)
Initialed, titled and dated '"SP37" SR.08' on the reverse.

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £446,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2014 7pm