‘The sublime refinement of Mark Rothko is crossed with the anarchic gestures of spray-can graffiti’ (J. Deitch, quoted in The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 6).
A vast, deep expanse of fire and emerald, laced with seemingly unending strata of pink, purple, blue and black, Sterling Ruby’s SP220 submerges the viewer in a mesmerizing hallucinogenic panorama. Engulfing our vision through its dramatic scale, the work’s virtuosic spray-painted surface exudes a misty luminosity that seems to hover before the canvas itself. Executed in 2012, the work stems from the iconic series of abstract paintings that the Los Angeles-based artist began in 2007. Described by Jeffrey Deitch as ‘the sublime refinement of Mark Rothko… crossed with the anarchic gestures of spray-can graffiti’, Ruby’s unique painterly abstractions are among his most visually arresting works (J. Deitch, quoted in The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 6). Inspired by the graffiti culture surrounding his LA studio, the abstract paintings are situated within a diverse practice that spans installation, collage, video and sculpture. Revelling in the hazy sfumato effects created by his chosen medium of spray paint, Ruby creates a vibrant mist of colours that blend and interfuse across the canvas, merging raw urban energy with the ethereal transcendence of Abstract Expressionism. As one of the most exciting artists to emerge in the twenty-first century, Ruby has risen to great critical acclaim over the last decade, with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2008), the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva (2012), the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (2013) and, this year, the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Ruby’s amorphous layering of spray paint upon canvas has its roots in street culture. The artist has explained how the relationship between street gangs and city authorities has informed his practice. ‘My studio [in Los Angeles] 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-graffti teams during the night. Power paint sprayers were used to cover up the day’s graffiti in a muted wash of either beige or gray. The city did this under the cover of darkness, while the gangs seemed to prefer the vulnerability of the day. One wall in particular seemed to be the primary site for these territorial disputes. By early morning, there would already be four to five rival tags, the markings were still decipherable. By nightfall the individual traces were impossible to break down. The tagging had become abstract. 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’ (S. Ruby, quoted in The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 190).
Ruby’s work occupies a distinctive position within the diverse trajectory of contemporary painting – a trajectory that runs from Abstract Expressionism through Pop Art, to the spray-can works of Christopher Wool, the explosive canvases of Julie Mehretu and the opulent stencils of Rudolf Stingel. Confronting the viewer with a mixture of anarchism and splendour, Ruby’s paintings broach issues of urban conflict through the artist’s own brand of incandescent abstraction, combining frenetic energy with kaleidoscopic visual effect. Describing the artist’s use of spray paint, Robert Hobbs has explained how ‘Ruby begins each work as if he is drawing – making signs – so that the canvas gets tagged with intense hues and often with neon paint’ (R. Hobbs, ‘Sterling Ruby’s Post-Humanist Art’, Sterling Ruby: GRID RIPPER, exh. cat., Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, Bergamo, 2008-2009, p. 86). Covering these forms with translucent layers of spray paint, Ruby’s abstract canvases can be seen to mirror the process of obfuscation he witnessed in his urban surroundings. As in SP220, the dysfunctional becomes a springboard for the beautiful. ‘I have always thought of art as similar to poetry’, Ruby has said, ‘[in] that it can’t be proven and yet, if done right, has a sense of unmistakable aura’ (S. Ruby, quoted in J. Ribas, ‘Sterling Ruby: Sincerely Hostile’, in Flash Art, no. 271, March-April 2010).