Sterling Ruby’s SP83 is a rich and luscious painting which investigates the nature of abstraction in the contemporary age. The verdant surface is part painting, part abstracted graffiti—what the artist himself describes an “illicit merger,” inspired both by art history and the urban landscape of his native Los Angeles. Here, the striations of green and purple sweep across this large-scale canvas creating a chromatic landscape of monumental proportions.
To make the painting, Ruby approached the canvas as if he were drawing and tagged it in vibrant colors. The artist then ritualistically and repeatedly went back over the tags with dark paint, intricately working the piece’s surface. 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-graffiti 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 splendor, Ruby’s paintings broach issues of urban conflict through the artist’s own brand of incandescent abstraction, combining frenetic energy with kaleidoscopic visual effect. 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 SP83, 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).