I had not heard of Sterling Ruby before. Living in my peripheral city in the north it’s sometimes hard to know everything that happens in the world. But it’s no excuse. Sterling Ruby (born 1972, in Germany) is an artist based in Los Angeles, who is now having his first solo show in Scandinavia, at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. It is always interesting to see how artists that are not based in Stockholm are perceived and received here. There is just one problem – Stockholm art scene is very Stockholm oriented, and in some cases Stockholm patriotic.
Sterling Ruby is showing his touring exhibition Soft Work, which consists of a hundred or so pieces from his Vampire and Husband Pillow series. Bonniers Konsthall, in collaboration with several other institutions – FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims and MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma), is showing Ruby’s new soft objects for the first time. For this occasion he has created specific pieces entitled Stockholm Butterfly and Stockholm Wolf. This is the largest compilation of this show to date and it changes depending on the space. Although the works themselves do not change, they expand and multiply every time they are shown – like a living cell.
Ruby is part of a Los Angeles art scene that so far has been unknown to the Swedish public. It can be hard to relate to this sunny, happy-go-lucky lala-place when you live in a blizzard-infested city. It also creates а type of strange orientalism, which is not based in colonialism, but rather stems from a fantasy image of what LA is, taught through TV and films. The LA art scene (with Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy in the front) did have a brief upheaving during the 90’s here, but Stockholm’s fascination with cities like New York, Berlin, or London has been greater ever since. This is grounded in a wish for Stockholm to be seen as an intellectual city. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has taken a different role for us. Through reality TV shows like Svenska Hollywoodfruar (Swedish Hollywood Wives) and the latest season of Swedish Top Model, LA has become Stockholm’s dirty pleasure.
Now, let us go back to the exhibition at hand. Ruby wants to be seen as a feminist (!). It is interesting, as female artists of his generation (and later) do everything to move away from that epithet. Here one usually talks of the feminist trauma. He embraces it. Feminism is not dead – it is reborn. Sterling Ruby discusses the subject of feminism through craft, and men sewing. Through that he also discusses art as a therapy, which makes me think of the Husband Pillow series. Although the works are staged as caterpillars in the exhibit, they are based on pillows that you can actually buy. The name also reveals that it is a pillow that embraces you, a comfort pillow. But Ruby and I look at this piece in different ways. I look upon them with my Swedish eyes, still in snowstorm darkness and in a need of a hug, yet his analysis is based on a critique of American politics. It is a critique mostly from a feminist perspective, where men and women are issued roles in which they have a guide of living. Sewing is a part of the female role.
Sterling Ruby, Double Vampire 3, 2011. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
The Vampire series connotes something else. Sterling Ruby describes his work as schizophrenic and with this series you can see that. While the Husband Pillow embraces you, the Vampire plushy pushes you away. They are still fun, but there is a darkness to them. These pieces mostly make me think of the late Mike Kelley, who was Ruby’s friend and mentor. You can see his influence in the color choices and in the black sense of humor. It almost feels like homageto Kelley.
One also cannot surpass the Americana references, which is mostly seen in the fabric. Many of the plushy pieces are sewn in a dirty American flag fleece fabric. Not that they are dirty in a symbolic way; the fabric is dirty in a literal way. This becomes a part of the exhibit – they are valuable in a conceptual way, rather than a material. Isn’t this the image of Los Angeles and the US in a nutshell? From afar everything looks clean and welcoming, but when you come closer it actually reveals itself as being dirty and damaged.
Having said all of this, it is a fun show. But all I want to do is jump on everything and play with all of the soft things. But, maybe, it is just the kid in me.
Sterling Ruby Soft Work opened on December 15, 2012, and it continues until March 17, 2013, at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm.