In his 2004-5 video Transient, Sterling Ruby embodies a disheveled, homeless drifter moving through a terrain both ruinous and vacant. Along the way the eponymous character creates unsettling little ephemeral sculptures, splashes blood-red nail polish in a concrete pit, and—yikes—fucks a skull. Later in the video, Ruby adopts a second persona: the obsessive, obnoxious director of the narrative we have just witnessed. The appearance brings unexpected comic relief to a dark and knowingly unpleasant work; more importantly, it suggests Ruby's interest in positioning the artist as an archetypal figure, a duplicitous creator-destroyer engaged in a self-induced, self-perpetuating cycle of making and unmaking.
Highly prolific, Ruby moves fluidly—like a transient—among video, ceramics, sculpture, installation, drawing, photography, and collage. Rather than obliterating the notion of medium, his sprawling practice reifies a more primitive sense of the term, structuring much of his work's meaning around the agency of its becoming. His ceramics, with glazes that appear to be melting, suggest violent, visceral creation, retaining a sense of the material's initial malleability in the final forms. The ceramics are visually striking but nearly impossible to apprehend in one's memory, at once recalling wobbly three-dimensional peace signs and eviscerated rib cages. (Clearly related to the ceramics, a creepy kiln has appeared in a number of collages, appearing paradoxically as a vaginal point of origin and a deadly void.) While a recent sculpture, Orange Inanimate Torso (2005), is as grisly as the name suggests, the work also vigorously asserts its indefinite, "abstract" nature.
This engagement with form and formlessness is clearly indebted to postminimalists including Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris (both keenly aware of the artistic potential of embodiment and persona), as well as Los Angeles father figures Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. But the scariest and most rewarding aspects of Ruby's work, in which the artist obsessively attempts to locate sublimity at various sites of trauma—and in the horrific potential of materials—finds roots in marginalized oddballs such as Paul Thek, Lucas Samaras, Bruce Conner, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and as suggested by a recent collage, sci-fi artist-designer H. R. Giger. Giger's signature aliens, part insect, part machine—methodically juxtaposed alongside images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, war protestors, Linda Blair from The Exorcist, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, and heavily tattooed women—are agents of transference, transgression, transformation, and (perhaps) transcendence. As such, they embody Ruby's ambition to locate trauma—and meaning—in an unfixed state.
This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, October 31 - December 31, 2006.