SUPERMAX 2008 makes a remarkable first impression. With a maximum-security prison as his touchstone, Sterling Ruby converts the MOCA gallery into a traumatic site of punishment – and an over-crowded one at that – filled with graffiti-covered plinths, spray-painted canvases, collages, glossy-drip stalagmites, and monumental wood diagonals. The result is a sort of maximalist institutional critique, by way of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
The installation is dense and vaguely claustrophobic. This is a testament to Ruby’s prolific output and also a programmatic simulation of crowded prison conditions. The sculptures are space hogs. The plinths have large footprints and the resin stalagmites take advantage of the gallery’s towering vertical space. Inside the gallery, one is always in danger of brushing up against a sculpture, wall, or another person.
With grand gestures, Ruby’s installation pushes against the weight of art historical precedent. His practice is, in part, a reflexive consideration of the status of “the art object in the twenty-first century.” His work is a steroid-injected version of the “Unmonumental” sculpture identified in the recent New Museum exhibition of the same name. What is most conspicuously absent from Ruby’s repertoire here are his fragile ceramics. These amorphous objects could serve to blunt the hard edges of prison life in SUPERMAX.
The expressive force of Ruby’s work often gets registered in incongruities of form and formlessness - a friction between the rational and what Ruby calls “amorphous law.” These conflicts manifest in individual works but also at the level of architectonics. High above the gallery, the corners of atrium windows anchor stuffed Fabric Teardrops (2008) that anthropomorphize the space. The gallery is transformed into a Philip Guston-like caricature: The neutral white-cube turned Sad Sack.
Down below, a greasy Formica plinth gets a similar treatment. Big Grid / DACSKKKK (2008) is ornamented with etched tears streaming from a pair of symmetrical windows or eyes. Gang codes are recruited to mark the surface of quasi-minimalist forms. Did this plinth kill a man? Is it part of a conflation of signs, or is it a rhetorical device? This is where Ruby’s voracious appropriating hits a snag.
Capitalizing on criminality is one thing for an artist like the rapper Lil’ Wayne and another for Ruby (both utilize the tattooed tear). The collected tags and graffiti are from a picture archive compiled by Ruby during photographic excursions that amount to ghetto tourism. In this case, signs of resistance are plundered for discursive purposes – for facile interrogations into the authenticity of expressive gestures.
“You are in SUPERMAX,” the exhibition catalog notes, “for a crime committed on the inside.” 1 And like the penitentiary inmate, one must be an insider to really get what SUPERMAX is all about. The framed collage, CDC AT PDC STUDY (2008), illuminates this high-stakes institutional critique. It features a photographed aerial view of a penitentiary complex stacked vertically and topped with an image of the MOCA gallery ceiling. The remainder of STUDY is dominated by a bold sans-serif text announcing: “THE ABSOLUTE VIOLATION COMES FROM INSTITUTIONAL MINIMALISM.” But like most invectives, one regime is simply called upon to replace another. Distressed collages and abstract spray paintings displace the Minimalists’ “Rhetoric of Power”2 with faux-naive gesturality. Analogies to prison culture are leveraged as assaults on the ruins of Minimalism and the assumed neutrality of institutional frameworks. All in all, the critical dimension of the work functions as a theater of complicity, where the museum plays host to a dogmatic institutional critique.
Not all transgressions miss their mark. Ruby’s work is most rewarding when he follows the lead of older artists that locate the abject within the strictures of high modernism. Mike Kelley was an instructor and a cited influence on Ruby during his time as a graduate student at Art Center in Pasadena. For three decades, Kelley has been treading much of the ground that is now being explored by Ruby. In 1989, Kelley wrote that, “Much contemporary artwork is understandable only in reference to the history and issues surrounding reductivist practice – especially Minimalism…The historical referencing of reductivist paradigms here is only a legitimizing façade. This is a secret caricature – an image of low intent masquerading in heroic garb.”3
Kelley’s final two sentences are most germane to Ruby’s strategy of conflating “low intent” and “heroic garb” into a form of caricature. As noted earlier, this act falls flat when prison codes and tags become part of a “legitimizing façade” akin to “street creds”. But one of the high points of modernist lampooning is an utterance spray-painted by Ruby on the wood beams of the show’s most cage-like sculpture, Time Machine, 2008:
Time machine is least important now…
The past has cheated me…
The present torments me…
The above confessional intimates the torments of a narrator trapped in the seedy confines of a geometric sculpture. With the absence of a figure, the text suggests the remorseful voice of the object itself. Ruby, essentially, animates a modernist form tormented by its lack of efficacy.
SUPERMAX is least effective as an indictment of authoritarian institutions. The persistent rhetoric and manifestos are simply agitprop for Ruby’s theatrics. Ruby’s work is best considered as a compulsive engagement with materials and form and SUPERMAX, the sculptural equivalent of a B-horror film, set in a prison, that tackles the legacy of modernism.
1 Sarah Conaway, “SUPERMAX,” MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008
2 Anna C. Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990)
3 Mike Kelley, “Foul Perfection: Notes on Caricature,” Artforum, January 1989 (p. 92)
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.