I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Brief Reflection on Sterling Ruby

(Please do not confuse this essay with my review of Ruby’s PDC show in next month’s ArtReview)

When I view Sterling Ruby’s work, I get the impression that it is not Ruby making the work, but a piece of Ruby or maybe not Ruby at all. The sculptures, drawings, and installations seem as if another character, a character that Ruby created, is making the work. The person is imprisoned, probably hurt, shifty, violent, uneducated, ashamed, maybe adopted, and has dirty fingernails. The character does not like to be tied down, is earnestly expressive in any way that they can find, works hard on clumsy things, and makes ardent and explosive gestures. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Ruby’s work is simply a response to restrictive aesthetic or civil programs like prisons and minimalism although those reasons are ultimately why I like Ruby’s work (as we will see later). Ruby’s practice is deeper than that, it is reflection on the nature of the contemporary self, a self that may look like the self of Ruby’s character – a person destroyed, crippled, or split open by trauma.

Connection between this person and others either inside or outside of the walls that hold them does not seem possible – with such a shifting self, how can one stay alive or attentive long enough to get a bearing, how can one form associations that enact a change in the person? The answer, it seems to me, is that one cannot – the character is permanently riddled as a mess, having a sickness without a cure. They are the traumatized schizophrenic. Their messages, scratched on the surfaces of Robert Morris boxes or vitrines, are either for the gatekeepers or for the helpless like them. Pretty bleak stuff.

It is common to run into such bleak visions in the arts now that we are so aware of the prisons we live in ( I recommend Martin McDonough’s play Pillowman if you want to see how far this goes). As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to leave the totalizing structures and have a vision outside of our normal social relations. One is transcendence, a belief in dissolving into a union with a super order beyond our comprehension. The other, vastly more popular in the arts but not in the wider world, is to devolve into formlessness. Either the “always was” or the perpetually “not yet.” Both visions have something in common – people laying claim to either one are considered mad.

I’ve been thinking too much about Ruby’s character and what the character may mean, about the feeling I have when I try get to know this character. The character seems tailor made for a culture obsessed with trauma and the exposing of conditions for troubled lives. The presence of the character, not quite whole and partially absent, conforms, I think, to Barthes notion of the “Return of the Author” -- the shredded ghost of a self that arrives through our interaction with a work of art. Finally, the character seems to enact the possibility that, in the words a recent Rosalind Krauss essay, that “who comes after the subject’ in society is a multiple personality.” Ruby’s character, constructed as well as written by Ruby, is stricken with the horrible illness of never being able to know itself, never being able to have enough of a handle on things to do any thing else but try to claw its way out of box it was buried in alive. So, in other words, Ruby’s character is basically perfectly in line with all the vogue horrors of a certain vision of the human self. Depressed yet. I am.

I guess I have to make a choice – is Ruby’s character on the fringe and an isolated case or is this our present and our future? For this reason, I admit Ruby’s work ties me into a knot. The idea that our future or our present holds that we can never know anything for sure about ourselves or others is not something I have ever been willing to live with. The chimera of the contemporary schizophrenic self scares me. I want to believe in the possibility of connection between two selves. I’ve never considered the “not yet” liberating in anyway. Perhaps my reservations could be considered an attempt at that old virtue of prudence – maybe I just think that these bleak visions are just melodrama and that maybe we spend too much time with them.

However, I think Ruby makes important work, potentially highly effective work. I have no doubt that Ruby is a major artist – I happen to think he is a brilliant artist. Here’s why.

I’ll stem the horror and put Ruby’s character on the fringe – I will make the character an isolated case. This character describes (maybe just in “Zone of Proximity” sort of way, sorry for the jargon) a variety of contemporary people that actually exist – criminals in Supermax prisons, detainees at government facilities like Guantánamo Bay, people inside situations that they can neither cope with nor flee from, people that are in situations where they are no longer protected by the fragile blanket of the law.

It would be cruel to show any of these people directly. It would be ghastly. I believe, absolutely, in that Lionel Trilling reflection that the contemplation of cruelty may only make us cruel ourselves. For this reason, I really dislike the work of people like the Chapman Brothers and other artists that think unfettered representation of suffering does some good (Goya’s Disasters of War included).

I think Ruby allows us to contemplate cruelty in a more effective way. He comes at these horrors, to use that great Emily Dickinson reflection, “at a slant.” Ruby gives us evidence of trauma, evidence of suffering, and the evidence is at enough of a distance, that with a little time, we literally create the suffering person ourselves and we subsequently feel compassion for them. The work is neither confessional nor plangent. It is a sly observation on Ruby’s part that often our fantasy of a person compels our actions more than our direct knowledge of them – our confrontation with the ghost, however fractured, is a good thing. All we have to do is know that the ghost stands in for someone that actually exists, that actually suffers, and has the capacity to be comforted despite their bonds and despite in any futility that we may have attributed to their situation.