Catalog text by Kate Fowle

On withdrawals, regression, and feeling when something is right

A couple of months ago I went to a talk given by two neurologists. During the question and answer session, they were asked if there is a difference between the mind and the brain. The answer got complicated, but in short they said that when something is right, the brain gives off a physical responsegoose bumps, palpitations, sweaty palms, dilated pupils before the mind knows as much. The gap between the body's response and the reasoning that goes on in the mind is a matter of milliseconds. That's nothing. But then again it's everything, because if understanding can be physically manifested, even as just momentary disorientation, then it follows that something produced by hand could embody knowing in a way that is less explicitly communicative than experiential.
The ceramic pieces Sterling Ruby now calls ashtrays, were all initially made as glaze tests. Their form started out as a practical solution for containing pools of liquid, and used to determine color combinations and firing times for his larger ceramic works. Technically they are the evidence of the artist resolving questions, but instead of becoming artifacts of this investigation, they appear as microcosms of rightness with a pent-up physicality. The tests have taken on a life of their own and literally look like miniature, gloopy, rasping, and burbling worlds that offer up endless potential for the imagination. Well, some of them do. To date there are well over 100 of these experiments that have been kept, of which about twenty have been given to people and the rest are laying around the studio, described by Ruby as being used by a mix of Cannabis patients, chain-smoking movie executives, and as desktop catch-alls for the studio folks. Others have been repurposed in a new series of ceramic works collectively entitled Basin Theology, which are made from accumulated failed pieces that are absolved through their new function.
Based on their potential use in other works, that the ashtrays exist at all indicates Ruby doesn't see them as failures, and yet they are not necessarily all successes in terms of resolving the questions for which they were initially produced. While they have found various functions around the studio and as gifts, the very fact of their multitude suggests there is also something else compelling about them.
Through a number of his works in recent years Ruby has addressed how contemporary society is burdened by people's knowledge of the past, and by their inability to do anything but repeat that past into the future. In a way the ashtrays stop this cycle, as they are a kind of essence of the future. The best way I can think of elu- cidating what I mean by this is to quote a passage from the book ubik by Philip K. Dick, in which Joe Chip, a hapless, somewhat over-sexed nerd (and temporary head of Runciter Associates following the sudden death of the founder,) is having an epiphany while experiencing the strange phenomenon of the material world around him the possessions in his apartment; his car, the elevator in his building reverting to increasingly antiquated models of themselves from increasingly distant eras, and occasionally regressing into non-existence:
The TV set had receded back a long way; he found himself confronted by a dark, wood-cabinet, Atawater-Kent tuned radio frequency oldtime AM radio, complete with antenna and ground wires. God in heaven, he said to himself, appalled.
But why hadn't the TV set reverted instead to formless metals and plastics? Those, afterall, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato's ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real. The form TV set had been a template imposed as a successor to other templates, like the procession of frames in a movie sequence. Prior forms, he reflected, must carry on an invisible, residual life in every object. The past is latent, is submerged, but still there, capable of rising to the surface once the latter imprinting unfortunately and against ordinary experience vanished.
Using this logic, the ashtrays are not experimental by-products of larger ceramics but the universal, or real of certain classifications. However, unlike the objects in Joe Chip's malleable world, if Ruby's large ceramics were to revert, I don't think they would become ashtrays. The form is not one of the templates as a result of which Ruby's processes are occurring, as much as they are the visceral evidence of his knowing something. In other words, the ashtrays are not the past or future of anything. That said, I'm not sure that the larger ceramics and the ashtrays can, or should, co-exist physically in time and space. There is something destabilizing about them together which I have experienced first hand: A few years ago Sterling sent me a ceramic, which arrived packaged together with an ashtray in a crate he made specially for the purpose. The ceramic was completely broken. Of course this could just be a one-off case, but perhaps it is also why, for the most part, the ashtrays stay in the studio rather than get sent out into the world.
So, while I am the proud owner of a broken ceramic still in its crate, I am more avidly the user of my ashtray, which now, no matter how often it gets washed, will always have the added patina of ash residue in the crevices of the unglazed parts of the clay. I like that. Actually I'm lying about being an avid user though. I was, until four weeks and four days ago, when I gave up smoking after 23 years. I thought I could transfer the use of my ashtray to benefit my new-found habit, but there is something very dissatisfying about mushing worn-out nicotine gum into the swirling red and turquoise glaze. That said, strangely it seems that writing about ashtrays; looking intently at so many of them (and at one in particular that has given me great pleasure,) feels obscene enough to almost make it worth having quit smoking. Almost...

(From exhibition catalog: Sterling Ruby, Ashtrays, p.4-5, Pierre Marie Giraud, Brussels)



Catalog text by Sterling Ruby

I grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania that was heated by a wood-burning stove.
By the age of ten, it was my duty to chop wood, build and feed the fire. I hated chopping wood, but I loved lighting and maintaining the fire. The chore held a real fascination; the responsibility that came with keeping the fire going was possibly tinged with a bit of fear.

Our barn burned down when I was 11. They caught an arsonist who was a volunteer fireman. He had been setting barns on fire for years. everyone wondered what would drive someone to do this. I had a very good understanding of what an arsonist was, even at such a young age.

A few years ago I started buying cast iron stoves, and stove kits to assemble at the studio. My father ships them to me from Pennsylvania since emission laws in California make it impossible to purchase them here. For a time, I would burn all of our scrap from the wood shop in these stoves. there was always smoke in the studio yard. the smell was familiar.

I started thinking about these stoves as sculptures and decided to make my own. I made makeshift stoves from cardboard and foam. then we cast them in bronze. later, I produced them in steel. I wanted the stoves to be utilitarian. there is a real psychology to fire. I am reminded of this whenever I light the stoves.

As a kid I came across an Amish quilt in one of my friends homes. the quilt was vibrant; its colors seemed to glow, and the geometry, although slightly off, seemed to exude a spiritual aura. I remember thinking how out of place this quilt felt in relationship to my friend's family who primarily dressed in drab or black colors. Amish quilts were originally intended as a dowry, given by the wife to the husband to be placed on the bed upon marriage. Part ritual, part aesthetic, part utilitarian, part therapy, the quilt would be made by a group of women including the bride-to-be as a communal and family oriented right of passage. those quilts stuck with me for years.

I have been making quilts in the studio from scraps of bleached denim and other textiles left over from the production of soft sculptures and fabric collages. the quilts are my own version of utilitarian frugality, similar to Japanese boro textiles and the quilts from gee?s bend, Alabama. I am seeking to create a transformation via craft at the convergence of the functional and visual object.

(From exhibition catalog: Sterling Ruby,  Stoves & Quilts p.5, Pierre Marie Giraud, Brussels)