It’s tempting to say that Sterling Ruby wants it both ways, but doing so would demonstrate a dualistic worldview that looks, nowadays, almost comically retardataire. It’s been mainstream art-world manners for quite a while to lament the psychic repercussions of American cultural, economic and moral decline while also vibing off the downhill ride. Acceptable, as well, to do so from a pulpit in a place like Hauser & Wirth, the visual arts equivalent of a global megacorp; or to mingle the aesthetics of canonical 20th-century art with doomy signifiers while also licensing your aesthetic’s pseudo-punk side to fashion designers. Prized under these conditions are relative aesthetic invention, a debonair handling of supposed contradiction and sheer thrust. The Raf Simons dresses that Ruby splattered with bleach in 2010 are fairly vibrant and disorderly, given the circumstances. So too was the German-born, Los Angeles-based artist’s extensive, effusive show in London, for all that it’s hard to locate the real source of its animated chilliness.
The exhibition is entitled ‘EXHM’, which we’re told is the artist’s compression of ‘exhumation’, and a good proportion of the works look artfully dressed as if freshly dug up, half-rotted. Ruby’s ‘Basin Theology’ (2011–13) ceramics feature big, rough, low-rimmed bowls filled with broken or misfired pottery, doused in glossy and sometimes bloody glazes: the artist apparently kept breaking, melding, glazing and re-firing these works until he arrived at this Ken Price-in-purgatory display. Several big collages titled EXHM (2012) convey a befouled Schwitters-via-Rauschenberg tang, being composed of muddied, bloodied and grease-stained cardboard sheets held together with duct tape and speckled with rough geometric cardboard shapes. They are fringed by fragmentary materials including small aerial photographs of what look like dusty military operations or bombsites, Bud Light packaging, Astroglide lube, pregnancy testing kits and CD inlays for Lil B, A$AP Rocky, Gucci Mane et al. I spotted nothing from Lil Wayne, a.k.a. Weezy, though there are some prescription packets of Ruby’s asthma medication, about which I don’t particularly want to conclude that a culture characterized by basic impulses towards violence, selfishness and pleasure is making the artist breathless.
If the collages are among the exhibition’s most unproductively dead works, the show’s main surge, found in the northernmost of Hauser & Wirth’s two big spaces on Savile Row (the show unwinds across both), is in its near claustrophobic, funhouse spread of big sculptures rising from the floor and dangling from the ceiling. The three suspended works, made from stuffed fabric, nod to a lineage including Eva Hesse and Mike Kelley while flipping the softly comfortable into the threatening. Two, linking up to vampire-themed works elsewhere, resemble a stacked pair of drips – one of them a plain, 1970s-ish oatmeal colour, the other decorated with the Stars and Bars – while a third is a cross between a many-fingered hand and some kind of crustacean tipped on the vertical. (This impression is redoubled by a vaguely lobster-shaped floor-based soft sculpture, again wrapped in repeated iterations of the American flag.) Alongside these are luscious sculptural grotesques: some look like drag racers – a suggestion redoubled by the punning title of one, DRAG ON (2012) – thickly draped in red, blue and black resin dribbles, the whole partly resembling flayed flesh gone psychedelic and partly suggesting a process of petrification.
This show wasn’t accidentally overhung. Heaving excessiveness is one of the registers its maker invokes; disgust and self-disgust are others. It’s hard to fully separate those aspects from the work’s explicit commercial status. Ruby is as happy as Warhol was to repeat a stylistic idea over and over; he also seems to want to auto-critique his doing so, make it reflective of the debased culture he’s analysing. There are points where ‘EXHM’ is darkly transporting, pushing buttons so effectively you nearly forget where you are: the comic-foul-oppressive soft crustaceans, for example, which succeed precisely because their reference points resist fitting together. There are moments when art-as-product is well balanced by its aesthetic effects: as in an assembly line of the ‘Basin Theology’ ceramics, all superficially similar but arranged for rhythmic repetitions and changes that sweep one along. And there are occasions where Ruby brazenly pursues every angle at once, as in a roomful of fibre-filled gaping mouths from his ongoing ‘VAMPIRE’ series. Sucking the last drops from a recent cultural trope now in its twilight phrase, these each contain a cartoon version of fangs dripping with thick droplets of blood, i.e. they look like a collaboration between Hesse and Stephenie Meyer for Toys R Us. Who is the bloodsucker here? The answer might encompass collectors, dealers, artists, US culture and the audience (including the critic who affects to be above it), or – perhaps best for Ruby and most thoroughly modern for the rest of us – all of them at once.