The Drawing Room
February 22 - March 27, 2008
For hundreds of years, artists did everything in their control to refine their studio practices to achieve a singularity of style and technique. This changed slightly over the past century as Modern artists bounced from one orthodoxy to the next, but at any given point their work would have still been cohesive. In the last two decades, however, attitudes have changed considerably. Sterling Ruby’s exhibition, Chron, at the Drawing Room in Soho is emblematic of the rejection by younger artists of the unitary vision sought by generations of artists before them. Though it is positioned as a “drawing” show, Ruby’s wanderlust takes his work outside drawing’s conventional domain into collage, photography, and sculpture, incorporating a range of media from cosmetics to spray paint to gold foil—all the finest trappings a trip to Canal Street can offer.
The wide stylistic variations of his work, however, as well as his bizarre love/hate relationship with Minimalism, sometimes result in Ruby’s goals getting lost in the noise. The question is whether there is a method to his divergent madness. In Chron, he mixes the excesses of pop glamour with elements drawn from reductive sculpture and painting. “(Mapping) Pink” for example, lays a riotous nest of drizzled nail polish over a geometric matrix of carefully inked lines. It is at once elegantly restrained and trashily expressive. The fact that the drawing is composed of nail polish can’t be overlooked, either. Its effectiveness as an innocent line drawing is quickly subverted by its materials, which transport the work from the realm of the autonomous and abstract to the referential and literal.
Other works such as “Soft Vortex” and “Prison” continue the visual duel with art history in ways that look nothing alike. “Soft Vortex,” a 60-inch-square wall object, looks like an oversized, bleach-splattered shirt ripped off an extra from Flashdance and wrapped around a small Carl Andre floor sculpture. If you approach such a work in terms of art’s past, it is clever and funny; if you don’t, I suspect it might look like trash. “Prison” collages a photo of a prison cell in the upper midsection of the paper, out of which emanates an array of slightly irregular, and slightly clumsy, colored pencil lines. One can’t help but read the prison image metaphorically in light of the geometric shortcomings of the line work (the “prison” of autonomous art?). If there is any lingering doubt whether such works are in fact guileful jabs at Minimalist dogma, and not accidental commentary, remember that Ruby exhibited a set of letterpress prints at Foxy Production two years ago, one reading “kill minimalism” and another, “minimalism tries to kill the amorphous law – geometry ends life.” Anyone who saw that show couldn’t be a character witness for Ruby if he was ever put on trial for vandalizing a Frank Stella painting.
Chron’s gaudiness is heightened by its more than occasional references to bodily fluids, body parts, and sex. At moments it has the unsanitary, faux-glamour feel of a strip club with its lights on. The use of gold and silver foil and cheap cosmetics in several of the works on paper makes it difficult to separate the cultural implications of his work from its formal characteristics—a circumstance that asserts an ongoing challenge to the rhetoric about “Primary Structures” and “Specific Objects” mouthed by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and company forty years ago. Ironically though, despite Ruby’s determined rebuke of Minimalism, his most significant achievement in Chron is his treatment of industrial material, a concern not far from the hearts of many of the Minimalists. However, Ruby and others like, say, Rachel Harrison and Isa Genzken, now seem to celebrate excess production and the accumulation of waste, rather than the mechanical possibilities of the process. Judd’s immaculate stainless-steel boxes look less utopian now, and more like precursors to the year-old, junked IKEA coffee tables waiting on the curb for the arrival of the Department of Sanitation.
Yes, there is a method to Ruby’s madness, but it is a counterintuitive method for anyone expecting unity and homogeneity. While a knee-jerk reaction would be to judge this exhibition as lacking a center of gravity, the more patient observer will recognize in its unevenness an antithetical relationship to the evenness of the past. Chron addresses the failures of the autonomous pursuits of reductive art by indulging in the excesses that seem to be our society’s—and art’s— destiny.