New York

Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Double Basin, 2011, ceramic, 8 x 37 x 38". From the series “Basin Theology,” 2009–.

Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Double Basin, 2011, ceramic, 8 x 37 x 38". From the series “Basin Theology,” 2009–.

Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Double Basin, 2011, ceramic, 8 x 37 x 38". From the series “Basin Theology,” 2009–.

In a 2006 article on his work (which earned attention while he was still a student), Sterling Ruby speaks to the author regarding his abiding interest in “the idea of something malleable being stopped.” In Ruby’s terms, this means manipulations in materials that start out molten or flowing and then set, such as bronze and ceramic, urethane and nail polish. Male sexuality is implicated, as is the rhetoric of power: Is it most impressive to be unyielding? Or does potency inhere in a gushiness that morphs rather than shatters? The juxtaposition of Ruby’s sculpture with that of Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) suggests how many cults of belief could be passed through these same questions, as if through a factory smelter or psychoanalytic session. Is painting soft while sculpture is hard? Is history hard while the present is soft? Into which category—rigid or plastic—should we put Jesus, bullfighting, Abstract Expressionism, Oedipal complexes, and display objects flecked with gold?

The show brought together ten works by Fontana, dating from between circa 1945 and 1962, and eight by Ruby from this year and last. Among the Fontanas were ceramic sculptures, kitschy, creepy, and baroque. A barely figurative Crocifissione (Crucifixion), 1950–60, is splashed with an iridescent, bloody glaze against spring green and ultramarine; Fondo del Mar (Bottom of the Sea), ca. 1945, is a knot of glistening tentacles. Corrida (Bullfight), 1950–55, a terra-cotta plaque enameled in black and ochre, presents a crowd in the arena, a toreador with spots of gold on his suit, and a charging bull, all twisting out of the clay as if they might soon smear back into it. A yellow Cristo (Christ), 1957, writhes from a plaque coated in midnight blue, a play-with-your-food, play-with-your-shit icon that manages, in its intensity, to feel sincerely devotional. The rest, three wall-hung “slash works” executed in copper sheeting and one monumental bronze, belonged to the series “Concetto spaziale, Natura” (Spatial Concept, Nature), 1959–60. The bronze is a dark-gray ball nearly three feet around, half-divided by a rough-edged slice. Erotically cleft, the wrecked wrecking ball plays with the malleable/stopped dichotomy, as do the slashed copper pieces, which glow as if firelit, yet remain depthless and sharp.

Ruby’s confidence can be measured by his willingness to go up against these pieces, and his skill may be appraised by the fact that he survives the comparison, even achieving the success that is the flip side of anxiety of influence; I caught myself thinking about Fontana “after Ruby.” The younger artist’s contributions here included a giant bronze and two series, one comprising collages on panels of mucked-up cardboard—they lie on the floor of his studio and are then reworked—and the other a group of shallow, oversize ceramic bowls filled with glaze-encrusted shards.

The collages include small black-and-white photographs of archaeological digs, and his big bronze—a gloppy mass of gouges, pours, and submerged half shapes, sandblasted to a sparkly gold and scarred with iridescent welds—is titled EXCAVATOR DIG SITE, 2010. The series of ceramic bowls is named “Basin Theology,” 2009–. Glazed carbon-black with pooling cherry and verdigris, they look like tarts forgotten in the oven. One might eat from a basin, or puke or defecate or wash in one, and a basin is also a geological form—identifying, perhaps, those archaeological pits where the past is buried. It doesn’t seem totally ridiculous that Ruby wants us to accept his grotesque basins—especially when seen alongside Fontana’s gloriously tacky, fiercely mythological offerings—as “theological” as well. Faith, even if it’s faith in art-historical precursors, is a molten thing that petrifies, cracks up, melts back together.

Frances Richard