‘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.’
(S. Ruby, quoted in H.M. Post, Hans-Maarten, ‘I like the fact that art can’t be proven’, Utopia Parkway, 10th December 2009).
BC (3978), 2012, is one of Sterling Ruby’s celebrated bleached canvases. To create these deceptively complex works Ruby first applies bleach to a canvas which is then bunched or folded, in the same way one might create a Rorschach card or tie-dye fabric, in order to allow the corrosive liquid to patternate the ground of the picture. Strips of cloth, selected from the vast collection of found materials in the artist’s studio, are then applied to the canvas with liberal amounts of glue. In this 2012 BC the picture plane is bifurcated by an intense red strip at the centre, with the angle at which it has been attached dictating the compositional slant that the other shaped fabrics follow. On either side of the red line three variously sized pastel shapes congregate. Although tonally the shapes are warmer to the right and cooler to the left, their formal qualities as blocks of colour are undermined by Ruby’s preservation of the blemishes that occur through the production process.
Art historical references are intentionally writ large across the bleached canvases. The formal essentialism of the Suprematists and the transcendentalism of Abstract Expressionism are both immediately invoked by Ruby and utterly undermined. The BC series are born from the painful knowledge that the formal imperatives which predicated these movements, and their attendant aspiration to social transformation, are now utterly exhausted. Therefore, beyond the evocation of the great grand abstract pictures of the past, Ruby’s composition is arbitrary. It is subject instead to ‘the dichotomy of repression and expression’ that the artist has said governs his work (S. Ruby, quoted in H. Myers, ‘Shape Shifter’, Art Review, no. 6, December 2006, p. 54). The bleached canvases are a eulogy to the fading glory of possibility in an anxious world distrustful of grand narratives.
Robert Hobbs has likened the relationship of Ruby’s work to pre-cursory movements as ‘a type of nesting’ whereby the work is ‘caught up in a manifold or Mobius strip in which the thoughtful viewer moves back and forth from source to a later emendation of it’ (S. Ruby, Sterling Ruby, exh. cat., GAMeC, Bergamo, 2008-2009, p. 56). In the case of BC it is the engendered nature of Abstract Expressionist painting that structures Ruby’s critique. His use of implicitly feminine materials, like his mentor Mike Kelley, exposes the fallacy of masculinity as an agency of expression. The fabrics he uses, unlike oil paints, do not pretend to the production of originality – they are humbled by their functionality. Instead, what Ruby’s cloth and bleach demonstrate are the processes of erosion and sedimentation that construct the present. For Ruby, the discoveries, the heraldings, the celebrations, the forgettings, the rediscoveries and the cherishings are all selection processes subject to the march of time and the contingencies of circumstance. The bleached canvases articulate this nuanced appreciation of the accretive processes of history, and how we stare back at the past in both love and anger.