From maximum security prison installations to nightmarish pillow sculptures, Sterling Ruby’s work is guided by darkly ambivalent obsessions. His bleached, torched, and enzyme-washed workwear appears like next century’s post- apocalyptic craft.
Developed initially as a uniform for the artist’s Los Angeles studio compound, the garments are self-cannabilized from his sculptures and paintings, which he exhibits in massive installations that evoke haunted notions of domesticity. Here, Ruby shares his workwear archive in a visual contribution for 032c.
These garments have all been produced by you. And they were all made to be worn by you. Can you tell me a little bit about how you wear them? Is it something that you put on at home in the morning? Or do you put them on when you get to the studio?
STERLING RUBY: I have to say that I’ve almost reached a point where I only wear what I make. It’s in my dressers at home. It’s in my closet. I still have some other clothes, plain Margiela sweatshirts, a bunch of Raf’s pieces, of course, and Dries. I wear J.W. Anderson and Rick Owens. l wear Patagonia as well. But I would say 90 percent of what I wear is what we make in the studio.
Is that about being close to your own work all of the time?
Probably. At the beginning of this process, it was almost like a uniform for the studio. I liked this concept of being camouflaged in the studio. It started off that I wanted something to wear that I felt comfortable in. I didn’t want to make choices. I just wanted a uniform.
Is wearing a uniform something that increases your ability to be creative, or that it’s something that gives you structure?
I think a bit of both. Usually what I wear in the studio has a kind of matter-of- fact utility to it, because I’m climbing ladders and I’m moving things around, and it has to be a garment that will handle the studio routine. But at the time, I also thought of it more as a ritual. I was treating fabric collage elements and sculptural materials, and I started to amass an archive of remnants that I wanted to turn into garments that I could wear. And that became a kind of ritual, an autobiographical recycling – the project was eating itself.
Speaking of eating, your vampire mouth sculptures seem to be a metaphor for a kind of all-consuming process. Am I reading that right?
The soft sculpture vampires came out of a couple of different desires for me. I wanted to make something that had the same kind of graphic impact as the Rolling Stones lips, something cartoonish and illustrative that could convey this whole iconography. I also had in mind this idea of the handmade, the domestic, a craft project. But then this comforting object would contain a subtle threat of violence. So, there’s this dark gothic humor to it.
With the enzymes and bleach you use, there is this sense that the textiles are sometimes vehicles of violence.
Some of the garments were worn while we were doing welding projects, and so there were holes burnt in them. And other chemicals have inevitably made their way into the clothes. It’s funny, when Raf Simons and I really started to think about doing a whole collection together, I had been doing all these kinds of textile treatments in the studio for a long time. We were frustrated, because these big European treatment houses couldn’t match what we were doing here in LA. I felt kind of proud about that.
“When Raf Simons and I really started to think about doing a whole collection together, I had been doing all these kinds of textile treatments in the studio for a long time. We were frustrated, because these big European treatment houses couldn’t match what we were doing here in LA. I felt kind of proud about that.” – STERLING RUBY
How many yards could you produce in one go at the time?
We were pushing ourselves to do 300 yards every couple of weeks, which is a limited quantity for the garment industry.
Not if you think about it as hand-worked material.
It was a task, but it was also kind of nice. You know, every round I was honing in on the insane implications of each gestural demarcation from all of the variables of each combination of dye, chemicals, and bleach.
It reminds me of how Jackson Pollock would lay a canvas down on the floor, and it would become a transcript of his actions. In some ways, the textiles are a transcript of a series of actions. Did you apply this to your explorations with Raf? With enzymes and bleach, there are processes that you can’t control.
There’s a lot of random stuff. I mean, even though the studio is relatively large, we were working on the floor, which is a very “art historical” way of capturing gestural actions. But that was definitely part of how the clothing got made. We had a somewhat limited area to work in and we would wash that area after each day of treatment, but it was inevitable that certain things got mixed. And sometimes the chemistry of that would create these strange, gross effects. Normally when you do a run of textiles, you want something stable. You want it all to be as consistent as possible. But, for us, every piece would inevitably be different. You couldn’t standardize this way of working.
Which is ironic, because workwear is normally an exercise in generic uniform. But here each uniform is so unique.
More than anything, I tried to emulate that in a lot of my sculptures. I like the seriality of working from a set form or pattern, but using all of these different treatments, so the look of it is always shifting, creating variations.
Speaking of which, across your sculptures and paintings, you have this kind of spray paint moiré that has an incredible depth to it but is also super graphic. It’s lived across all sorts of forms in your work. But then all of a sudden, one day, it ends up on a dress for Dior. What was your reaction to seeing it in such a different context?
What did you think?
I think the contradictions in that piece really make it brilliant. But I’m a fan of contradictions.
I like fashion when it’s treated seriously. I’m friends with Raf and I’m also friends with Delphine Arnault. She’s been a good friend. She comes to the studio a lot and she’s been a big supporter of the work. Raf is one of my best friends. And I think we both create within the same mindset. I knew that Raf and Delphine would not present my work in a bad light. There is a trust there. I think that the spraypaint paintings were born out of something that was not projected to become high couture. But I don’t necessarily think that the translation was a bad thing. You know, I thought very long and hard about why I was making those paintings the way I did at the time. I had my own guilt about how they started to have this kind of run within the art market. I think it’s very difficult for people in the art world to admit that there is as much of a luxury goods mentality in the art world as there is in fashion.
Do you maybe see workwear as a way of getting around the typical gallery-patron system?
Potentially, I think so. This exhibition is really just an archive, it’s very matter-of-fact, autobiographical. But I will say that I like the idea that there is an outlet for my work that isn’t the art market.
Why did you decide to mount all the garments on the wall for your exhibition at Sprüth Magers in sort of a line-up? It’s maybe an unusual association, but I actually thought of that Goya painting of the execution of resistors [left].
That’s obviously pretty heavy subject matter, but I really like that visual association. This was the first time I had done an exhibition like this. And I wasn’t sure how best to present it. We went through the kind of traditional mannequin setup, different types of armature, and ways to do it with 360 viewing possibilities. But the truth is that the show came about very quickly. So when we decided to mount the exhibition, I hadn’t really archived the textile and garment work ever. We started out by laying everything on the floor, and I liked seeing that multiplicity and flatness. My experience of the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met was that everything was presented just a little higher than human proportions. There was something about it that didn’t feel human, which I guess is not a bad thing. But I wanted the experience of these garments to be matter-of-fact – face-on at the height of the viewer.
To me that came across really strongly. Almost as if it was a kind of uncanny mirror of the viewer.
The line up of the installation suggests a blank matter-of-factness, but there is also something confrontational about them. They feel a bit threatening. I recognized after my install, that it also resembled one of my favorite Chris Burden works, L.A.P.D. Uniforms.
The setting in Mayfair on a commercial shopping street prompts someone to take on the role of a consumer looking at a collection. Is that a problem, or an asset?
I don’t even know if I can answer that at this point. All of the works are utilitarian. They were not for sale and they will never be sold. But I feel like they could be samples for a possible future collection. Most galleries don’t have the kind of presence of a street-level window space in Mayfair. I always thought that the great thing about their particular space, which is right down the street from Dover Street Market, is that it looked like a high-end storefront.
You use the pronoun “we” a lot when you refer to the work in your studio. Do you think of workwear as something that’s communally produced and experienced?
I think without a doubt the Bauhaus history is for me one of the most important art-historical ideals. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m an artist running my own studio. I have a staff of ten, and I work with about three of those people in textiles. So in tandem with our workshop and our metal shop, the textile studio has this kind of set structure of production that I couldn’t do on my own. I can run a sewing machine, but I’m not as good as Pinar or Wilson, who work in the studio.
I read somewhere that you used to practice so hard on your mom’s sewing machine that you broke it.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and I went to this hyper-masculine school with very set gender roles. My mother sewed, my grandmother sewed, all of my aunts sewed. There were maybe six or seven guys in my high school I was friends with, and we just hated being there. We got into fights all the time. And I remember I used to love working on my mother’s sewing machine. I would put patches on things and wear them to school, and the guys at school would just pick me apart. But the more it happened, the more I embraced it. My mother finally got me my own sewing machine – this heavy, metal Singer that I still have.
Does your choice of single items – sweatshirts, button-downs – mean anything special to you? For example, the hoodie in American culture is now loaded with meaning. What did these items mean to you in terms of where you come from and American culture?
I did this interview recently, and they asked me about my take on streetwear. I think it’s pretty interesting how this phenomenon called “streetwear” has impacted what we think of as fashion in general. But it’s funny because I think I’ve been experiencing streetwear all my life. I remember all the kids in high school during hunting season would get in this camouflage, and they would all wear this hunting orange. And it was always basic, it was always utilitarian, but there was also this sense of wearing it to project an attitude. My friends were a bit more in the punk scene, so there was a very specific dress code to that. It had to be ragged or degraded, but it also had this militant sensibility. But a lot of people, myself included, never thought of this as fashion. And I know that the kids wearing camo didn’t think of this as fashion.
I was in the Midwest recently, and the number of ladies that I saw in head-to-toe camo at the supermarket was amazing.
What is your take on that?
“It’s very strange to see people in head-to-toe camo at Whole Foods. You can’t deny that to think about that is paradoxical. But maybe that’s how culture is starting to see ‘truth.'” – STERLING RUBY
I think it has to do with the current surge in right-wing politics. Consider the anti-government activists that recently held the Malheur Wildlife Refuge hostage. There’s a tendency in the US right now to find as many ways as possible to reclaim a libertarian, frontier heritage.
I did an exhibition in Paris recently, and a critic called my work “paradoxical.” It was something that made me realize that paradox is becoming a way of reading things – a way of projecting criticism. You’re kind of embracing the thing you’re critiquing in order to expose its flaws. It’s very strange to see people in head-to-toe camo at Whole Foods. You can’t deny that to think about that is paradoxical. But maybe that’s how culture is starting to see “truth.”
There’s a different gravitas of culture today versus 15 years ago, when Friends was on television and the Clintons were in the White House. There was a kind of innocence back then. But today shit is real and it is serious. And when you see camo at Whole Foods, there’s actually a cultural and political position there that is not a joke.
I think you’re totally right. And I think the way that is reflected in how people choose to dress themselves is very interesting.
In what way does your exhibition “WORK WEAR” expand on your experience in the punk scene?
I understood clothing as a reference very early on through the punk scene. At the time, living in rural Pennsylvania, I was going to DC and Baltimore often. I had a bunch of friends and I was going there on a weekly basis. So I was seeing Black Flag, and Henry Rollins wearing those weird black running shorts and nothing else. Early on, I would see H.R. of Bad Brains in all denim, so he looked like he was from the 70s, rather than in an 80s punk band. And then later on I was a really big fan of Chrome and Helios Creed, and I would notice his jacket, and his hat, and things like that. I was in Helios Creed’s van once, really just a kid, thinking that there was power in the way people dressed. There was such an association of the punk look with the attitude and behavior, the personas, and the music.
Is punk still alive?
I don’t think punk itself is still alive. I think it’s definitely done. But there are things that are happening right now in music that have that desire to rebel.
Is there anything that you’re listening to right now that you find particularly inspiring?
I think the Atlanta rap community has been on the forefront of changing hip hop for the past ten years. I think that Young Thug is creating transgressive hip hop that is a kind of rip in the universe of performance. I see it in his looks, his height, his slang, and the way he sings. He’s a candidate to become a global phenomenon coming out of the trap music scene in Atlanta.
How would you locate a critical point of view in your workwear?
I think an open-ended answer to your question is that I want it to be sincere. I don’t want to be ironic. I like coming at my work’s subject matter from all sides. From a personal standpoint, I can’t make work about something that I’m not obsessively drawn to. Again, thinking in terms of the paradox, it’s a multiple identity – taking things in from many sides. I think that’s the interesting thing about art. I couldn’t do that as a lawyer. I couldn’t do that as a politician. As an artist, I think that’s the great thing about not having a rigid rule system. It’s like poetry, it can’t be proven. I have a critical viewpoint of how artists have dealt with fashion in the past. I don’t have any interest in lending a logo, or lending a drawing to be mass-produced on high-end luxury goods. But I also don’t have any interest as an artist to make a line of clothing as a critique of the garment industry. So that leaves me in a non-proven interim, which I think is interesting.
I can imagine your workwear as part of an alternative economy. And I’m curious if you would describe workwear as being about abundance, or about scarcity.
This is another multifaceted question. I’m imagining that you might say that it’s about scarcity. I’m not sure how I would think of this work as an alternative economy. The workwear only exists as unique objects never made to be mass-produced. So I think that’s actually not being critical. I think that it is more interesting to question how this could become something that is mass-produced. I mean, obviously I couldn’t do mass-production, no matter what I say. To work within the system of the garment industry and the fashion world is a very odd thing right now. But the idea of production and distribution could be more critical from an artist’s perspective.
“[Fashion] is just very fast. And I like that risk.” – STERLING RUBY
Do you think that the music industry has interesting models to propose for how to create abundance for all?
It seems right now like the music industry is fighting to stay monetized, but it still is the best platform to influence the visual culture of a wider audience. Whether this translates to a new economic model, I do not know. Raf and I have been talking about this a little bit lately. As an artist, what would it be like to work as somebody who consults a musician – to do the clothes, the album covers, the music videos?
So then you’re taking this concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk into a whole new level.
That’s exactly right. And this has happened organically over the history of music, fashion, and art. But I think that it would be kind of interesting to take on head-on now.
What are some of the things you’ve exchanged with Raf over the years? Has he informed your thinking about textiles?
Over the past ten, 11 years Raf and I have started to be more open with one another about discussing our respective fields. In regards to our collaboration, Raf is very detail-oriented. He has a great sense of how things fit. I learned a lot about that from him. Something else I really admired while working with Raf is the speed at which he was able to make decisions. From an artist’s perspective, I think that’s very fresh. Like, you don’t sit on things. You just trust your gut instincts. There is a vulnerability to that too, putting things out into the world at a very fast pace. I know a lot of artists who overthink trying new things – like a painter who has been making the same formalist painting for the past ten years, trying to make a slight alteration to that painting and being apprehensive about putting it out into the world. Somebody like Raf doesn’t have that opportunity. It’s just very fast. And I like that risk.
In the art world, do you sometimes feel like you’re in the gears of a big machine?
Without a doubt. Art has hang-ups that are equally as frustrating as working within fashion seasons, or working with a fashion house.
Did you enjoy your first fashion show with Raf? How does it compare to an exhibition opening?
It was a lot faster. There’s a lot of intensity in that small timeframe, especially about the performative aspect of it. Would each model be able to walk? Would there be any stumbles? Would the pieces shift off the body? Those are all kind of anxiety-producing things that I don’t have with an art exhibition. For an exhibition, I can sit with it in the studio for a long time and even replicate how it would be installed in a gallery or a museum. I can make decisions based on a longer time frame. With fashion, for better or worse, you experience things faster. You experience the criticism of it much faster. The press for art takes a long time. You might have a show that’s up three months, and for two and a half months nobody writes about the thing. Nobody says anything, and then all of a sudden you’ll get an incredibly bad review on the last day it’s open. But 20 minutes before our show started, Raf and I sat down with Cathy Horyn. Immediately after, we did an interview with Tim Blanks. The speed of it is very, very telling.
Interview: PIERRE ALEXANDRE DE LOOZ, Portrait: MELANIE SCHIFF