A typical white space is divided in half, one wall of which is a floor to ceiling window onto Grafton Street, Mayfair. On the walls are two paintings and on the floor several cubic sculptures. All of these objects are covered in pink, green, blue, yellow and black industrial spray paint with drips where the nozzle has ceased operating. These are the facts of Sterling Ruby’s Spectrum Ripper exhibition.
Ruby’s practice has involved an interrogation of minimalist aesthetics for some time. His attitude can probably best be summed up by a poster he produced in homage to situationism that read ‘Finish Architecture, Kill Minimalism—Long Live the Amorphous Law’, 2005, but in this show his approach is muddle-headed, over simplistic and worst of all, open to charges of cynicism.
The concept would seem to be that painting over minimalist pieces with urban style spray paint in some way junks the aesthetic. The first problem with this is that the idea is executed in such an unimaginative way that thought shuts down in the face of banality and any suggestion of a critique is rendered null and void. The second problem is that the theoretical base from which this work claims its legitimacy may be unstable. Ruby views minimalism as an art of exclusion and repression but it is just as legitimate to view it as an aesthetic of universalism.
Spectrum Ripper is the last in a three part series. Zen Ripper and Grid Ripper were its predecessors shown in Milan and Bergamo respectively. Ruby is on more solid ground with his attack on Zen, which is a religion of repression masquerading as liberation, but the problem really is with the execution of the work. The imperfection of the spraying process, and the leaving of drips reveals the hand of the artist (or machine) in the work; it reveals the process, debasing the minimalist aim for purity, but does that really interest anyone now? Minimalism does not function as a paradigmatic movement anymore.
Perhaps it is more reasonable to view minimalism as a symbolic trope within Ruby’s diverse practice, a metaphor for exclusion, but this does not obscure the fact that this show is poorly executed and dull—it feels like an afterthought, an extension of an idea that may once have been interesting but has now burned itself out. It feels vague and it feels half-hearted.
Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers has an elite location, situated as it is in the heart of Mayfair, yet there is no consciousness of the incongruity between what Ruby’s work is trying to say and where he is saying it. It is shut down entirely. The New Yorker has described Sterling Ruby as: ‘one of the most important artists working today’. Even allowing for media hyperbole and accepting the ambiguities on the meaning of ‘importance’, this show should have us worried.
John Millar is a writer based in London