SP98 is a large-scale painting on canvas. Like all of Ruby’s previous paintings, it is executed in spray paint. It is the same size and format as SP96, also from 2010 (Tate T13330), and was executed using the same technique. Working with a restricted colour palette – red, grey and black – Ruby achieves a hazy, gritty quality to these paintings, where the paint appears to deface the canvas as much as cover it. Both these works, although abstract, are to some degree suggestive of landscapes. SP98 depicts what appears to be a very dark landscape, with a strong horizon line just below the centre of the painting that separates the land from the sky. The foreground is predominantly black, as is the very top of the painting, while the middle section is slightly lighter in tone, with the appearance of a broken red sky. The dark sky and black paint splattered across the surface of the painting suggest a rain storm. One larger dark shape, just to the right of the centre of the canvas, could be read as a human figure. This ambiguity of subject matter is intentional on the part of the artist. The lack of any specific narrative is also a feature of the titles Ruby chooses for his paintings; they are numbered sequentially and prefixed by the letters ‘SP’, denoting ‘spray painting’.
Ruby works across a range of media, from sculpture, installation and collage to painting, and in all of his work there is an implied violence and sense of destruction. The act of spray painting is ordinarily associated with graffiti, or ‘tagging’, and the defacing of public spaces, a common sight in urban environments such as Ruby’s home-city of Los Angeles. Ruby’s paintings appear to be similarly compulsive acts of expression, where the transient gesture of the artist becomes the subject matter of the works themselves. Critic Bob Nickas has characterised Ruby’s work as a ‘dichotomy of repression and liberation’ (Nickas 2009, p.220). Ruby himself has stated that his ‘intention is to work with as many media as a kind of schizophrenic labour strategy … Works may not look the same formally … but there is a lineage that links everything I do together.’ (Quoted in Ribas 2010, p.81.)
Ruby often includes his spray paintings within larger, multi-media installations, such as, for example, SUPERMAX, which was shown at LA MOCA in 2008. Ruby filled the gallery space with monumental minimalist concrete cubes (some ‘tagged’ with graffiti), hung red sculptures that appeared like blobs of paint from the ceiling or high on the walls, and displayed large spray paintings, similar to SP98, on the gallery walls. Ruby described the installation as having an ‘over-arching sense of catastrophe, of trauma’ (quoted in Nickas 2009, p.220). In such works, critics have traced the influence of Mike Kelley (born 1954), Ruby’s teacher and mentor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Discussing his interest in notions of entropy, or a sense of chaos and degeneration, Ruby has stated: ‘the artists of my generation try to make the entropic hyper-grotesque into candy, into something elegant. I’m interested in transcendence’ (ibid.). Within this context, SP98 could be read as transcending the everyday world and offering a glimpse towards a dark future, or back to a distant past.
Joao Ribas, ‘Sterling Ruby: Sincerely Hostile’, Flash Art, vol.43, no.271, March–April 2010, pp.80–84.
Bob Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting, London and New York 2009, pp.220–1.
Philipp Kasier (ed.), MOCA FOCUS: Sterling Ruby SUPERMAX 2008, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2008.