Sterling Ruby is a master of interdisciplinary media whose works serve to glorify the processes through which they came to be. Ranging from his expressive poured-urethane Stalagmite sculptures that evoke multiple gestural moments frozen in time to fabric collages and ceramic works that arise from the detritus of previously discarded material, Ruby is constantly examining the dialogue between street culture and contemporary art. Living in Los Angeles, Ruby has elaborated on how the struggle amongst various gangs and the city’s authorities has manifested itself into his oeuvre. “My studio was in Hazard Park, where the Avenues and MS13 gangs were fighting over drugs and territory. Their disputes were visually apparent through massive amounts of tagging. The city responded by sending out their anti-graffiti teams during the night … 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. The city teams would then continue the cycle with a clean slate that evening, and it would start all over the next morning. I started painting again when I saw this (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, 2012, p. 190).
Executed in spray paint—the same medium used by the various gangs in their territorial warfare—on canvas, SP186 is a symbol of the urban surroundings from which Ruby’s work finds its genesis. By taking a medium so closely connected with vandalism, gangs and graffiti tagging and using it to develop unique textures on canvas, Ruby has fused the seemingly opposing cultures into a single canvas. The competing planes of atmospheric colors recall the abstract tradition put forth by Mark Rothko, whose shimmering zones of pigment invite viewers, hypnotized by Rothko’s erudite ability to achieve compositional balance in the most sophisticated of ways, into an epic contemplation. As in Rothko’s Untitled from 1955, SP186 is anchored by a black luminescence through which varying shades of blue, pink, yellow and white emerge. Rothko’s Untitled is a striking nightfall landscape which simultaneously reminds us of dawn and dusk. Similarly, SP186 is a mesmerizing fusion of these two states, set against the hard-edged context of the downtown Los Angeles street culture.
With its crescendo of color and illusion of a vibrant surface texture, SP186 is also Ruby’s reflection on the German master of abstraction Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilder works. Richter’s triumphant use of the squeegee introduces an element of chance into the artist’s widely sought after paintings, not unlike Ruby’s deft approach with spray paint. Both artists’ methods result in highly expressive, multi-layered compositions in which coloristic harmony and lyrical resonance broadcast an evocative atmosphere of density and chaos. Ruby’s final nod to his predecessors lies in the sheer scale of the present work; at nearly two and a half meters high and over two meters long, SP186 is a vast expanse of monumental proportions that evokes a tough, urban aesthetic while still resonating with the canonical gestures and tastes of the abstract tradition.
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