‘I LIKE THE FACT THAT ART CAN’T BE PROVEN’ (Sterling Ruby on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 4)
One of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century? (According to The New York Times). Someone who has an affinity with the work of both photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and fashion designer Raf Simons? Someone who got attracted to art through the punk movement? It goes without saying that I had to go and ask American artist Sterling Ruby for his thoughts on beauty, as he was in Brussels for his show at Xavier Hufkens. ‘I probably like the way Raf Simons works more than the way most artists work.’ You’ll find the extensive interview after the jump.
Sterling Ruby was born in Germany to a Dutch mother and an American father, in 1972, and was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. He lives and works in Los Angeles and was Mike Kelley’s teaching assistant for two years. ‘This guy makes objects that are irresistible’. (Marc Glimcher of New York’s PaceWildenstein in W Magazine.)
Utopia Parkway: Beauty is a rather suspicious concept in contemporary art. Is beauty something that you care about, as an artist?
Sterling Ruby: ‘Yes, 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.’
You do nail polish paintings, you work with ceramics or build big monoliths. Do some of those materials work better in attaining that poetic level, that specific aura that you’re talking about?
‘Using so many different and multiple mediums actually allows me to transfer different aesthetics. Contextually they have different meanings, but they often wind up encompassing this kind of aura that I’m talking about. I guess, again, it can be a type of beauty.’
‘Everything I do holds a kind of gesture in it. For me, it’s this kind of dramatic gesture. A truncated gesture. It’s like an expression that was as one point very fervent and then it just gets kind of stopped.’
‘Contemporary art has a lot of baggage. It has a lot of history. A lot of movements. A lot of perceived failures and perceived successes. So the idea of expressionism now is… it might be perceived as a failed movement, and I think in a weird way that’s actually kind of beautiful.’ ‘Because it’s like this post-apocalyptic sensibility: what are you up against, how are you ever going to be able to get to something that might seem innate. Knowing that most people have prescribed a kind of end to art to a certain extend. It’s almost like this catastrophic sensibility of what you’re going to go up against.’
‘My generation is going through this dilemma of how beauty is prescribed. There’s this kind of aesthetic of degradation, of deterioration as a type of beauty. Like an entropic beauty. That’s perhaps very gothic or very baroque, to a certain extent. But it’s also a type of formalism or a type of negation on all of these different things that have happened prior to here and now.’
‘I don’t know if I ever think that things are beautiful. But I do think that things hold something that I’m very attracted to. I like to think about all of my work as a type of collage. A collage represents… illicit merger. Things not belonging together, absolutely making sense together. That’s the way I perceive everything that I do. That to me is actually kind of beautiful and desirable. This notion of things that are on the periphery and would never have anything to do with one another, now kind of joining one another and creating something else. That actually seems very successful and beautiful to me.’
What if people call your work ‘ugly’? Does it bother you?
‘Not really. Beauty is often thought off in terms of visual aesthetics. But it could also be a kind of temperamental or psychological aesthetic. So if somebody is saying that it is ugly or brutal, that actually holds something that is very endearing. To get to that now, after all of this baggage that I was talking about, is actually, in my mind, very successful. People call my work ugly a lot. But I think they are actually using ugly in a very positive way. Maybe some aren’t, of course.’
You are collaborating with Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons on a denim collection. What is the appeal of the world of fashion for a contemporary artist? Do clothes have an aesthetic quality that you’re intrigued by?
‘I have two really good friends who are fashion designers: Raf Simons and Rick Owens. I like the way they work. I probably like the way that they work more than I like the way most artists work. They are very good problem solvers, be it in a formal or a technical way. I like the fact that they run a body of work, a line of clothing, so rapidly. They do it in a very pragmatic way. They have to be good at it. They have to be quick and think on their feet. Make changes in a very rapid pace. Which a lot of artists don’t necessarily do.’
‘But they do all of that within an aesthetic sensibility. Everything has to have that kind of aura that I was talking about. You can’t see a line of Raf Simons without having the aura of Raf Simons. I quite like that.’
‘Fashion is something that people are completely endeared to. They wear clothes in order to transcend a kind of standard. It’s about social structures and hierarchies. I find that to be very interesting. That people believe in fashion as much as they believe in anything else.’
‘I made Raf’s store in Tokyo, and we are now working on a clothing line, which is something that I’d never thought I would work on. But it’s not just about clothes. It’s a collaboration with somebody who I think is an incredible artist. We’re displacing our roles in the project. Even though I might be perceived as a collaborator on a clothing line, my job is actually: the treatment of fabric. It’s about this sort of critique in the system of fashion. Raf is bringing me in in order to degrade the material, so to speak. I’m bleaching all of this denim. To me bleach has a very significant deterioration factor to it. It’s actually damaging the denim. It’s deconstructing it.’
For your show at Xavier Hufkens (Brussels) you have put your work together with photo’s of Robert Mapplethorpe. Could it have been anybody else’s work, instead of Mapplethorpe’s?
‘Yes, but then it would have been a different show. Initially my wanting to curate a show with Mapplethorpe’s work was really about subject matter. But as I started working with the Mapplethorpe Foundation and as I was looking at thousands of photographs, my interest and desire to do an exhibition with him became more about his kind of productivity. He produced so many works and in a weird way a lot of them haven’t even been seen.’
‘Over the last 30 years or so, his work has been truncated, segregated to a certain respect into compartments. You have the SM photo’s, you have the flowers, you have the nudes, but you haven’t had Mapplethorpe as a whole. Looking at that whole body of work seems to make his practice a lot more complex than just looking at it as just groups of work.’
‘It seems to me very similar to the way I operate. Even though I work with multiple mediums and multiple subject matters, all of these things can culminate into one. By looking at an entire body of work and not just at one group of work.’
‘So the formalism of Mapplethorpe became very interesting. The fact of the matter is that he treated everything in exactly the same way. It didn’t matter if it was a portrait of a horse, or a SM scene, or a set of silverware on a velvet background, or a rose in the studio. He treated everything in exactly the same way. In a sense he has made an aura around that. Everything has this same sense of transgression, sexuality and beauty. He was really good at doing that with everything. Not just the things that we know him for.’
‘I like to do that within my work too. People know the paintings, people know the sculptures, but by regrouping the works in a new way people might see links they haven’t necessarily seen before. By putting everything together, not only my work, but also that of somebody like Mapplethorpe, you make these different connections and you can see different associations that you might not have seen, if you would have been looking at it as a kind of one-dimensional piece, hanging on the wall or sitting on the floor.’
Apart from that ‘aura’, that poetry that we’ve been talking about, could you name one quality that you’re looking for, in your work?
‘I want it to be transient, even if I don’t know if that’s a quality. My work is not goal driven. It’s not to get to an end point. You have this drive and that keeps you going, but the drive isn’t necessarily based on a definitive definition or a definitive endpoint. Like: I want to reach a goal and accomplish this, so that it’s completely explained. I don’t actually find that to be interesting. There’s a perception of that, in all of the work, but it’s actually about the cyclical aspect of it. About the fact that it’s never attained. That it’s never an endpoint. That seems very dramatic and kind of upsetting, but in my mind it’s very desirable. And beautiful, to a certain extent.’
‘I never thought of art that way. I didn’t have a family that was very cultural. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania. I went to an agriculture school that actually didn’t have an art programme. My first interest in art was actually through the punk movement, when I was 12 or so. I was a big thing for me, getting introduced to music that had an aura that looked a certain way. Getting involved in a movement that had a certain type of dress or clothing. Getting involved with a movement that had an activity associated with it that was perhaps transgressive.’
‘I think it was probably an attitude more than… If you find yourself in the middle of Pennsylvania in the middle of all these farms and you get introduced to something like the eighties punk movement? That’s kind of like art. That’s how I got introduced to it. So, initially it wasn’t about art. But it was visual, and it was attitude based. Later on it kind of led into art, over time.’
Sterling Ruby, interviewed by Hans-Maarten Post, for Utopia Parkway, December 10, 2009 (Xavier Hufkens, Brussels).