Sterling Ruby Nods to Shakespeare for New Exhibition at Gagosian Athens

And are you grown so high in his esteem
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (act 3, scene 2)

As much as any living artist, Sterling Ruby has used the socio-psychological trauma of modern world existence to attempt to explicate some discernible sense of humanity, and its sense of responsibility for its own condition. It’s taken him from graveyards to prison systems to rethinks of the very notion of patriotism (he was born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany to a Dutch mother and American father, grew up in Baltimore, studied in Chicago, and now lives in Los Angeles).

His career in art has been a storied one, with his work collected by the considerable likes of the Tate London, Centre Pompidou Paris, MoCA Chicago, LACMA LA, SFMOMA, and the Guggenheim, Whitney and MoMA in New York. But surely at no time since he began working more than two decades ago has the Earthbound populace been so steeped in the traumatic as it has during these last fifteen months.

His new exhibition, opening May 13 at Gagosian Athens, is the rather threateningly titled THAT MY NAILS CAN REACH UNTO THINE EYES. But it’s actually a line from Shakespeare’s immortal farce A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play whose comic elements rely greatly on mistaken identity and misunderstandings. Yet for all its absurdist riffs on romance, it does also make pointed commentary on the darker side of human relationships. And so Ruby’s new paintings play with dichotomies via bisection and juxtaposition – indeed, each canvas is split down the middle by a strip of cardboard, referring to the play’s contrasting settings of the real and fantastical…but also perhaps referencing the shattered psyches of a human populace tormented by COVID crisis anxieties.

In fact, even the layout of the exhibition, spread across both floors of the stark white gallery, is meant to evoke the Bard’s characters’ narrative journey. And complementing the painted works are a pair of new sculptures, MORTAR. KISSING WALL’S HOLE and ACHERON, both also inspired by A Midsummer… – the latter taking its title from the Greek mythological river that transported the souls of the dead through the underworld and on to Hades.

Notably, Ruby extended his purview by launching a well-received fashion line, S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA, in 2019 – and he ultimately presented a collection at Paris Couture Week just this past January. So yes, even a global pandemic could not stifle his restless, prolific creative spirit. And to be sure, we’re all the more enlightened for it.

Sterling Ruby’s THAT MY NAILS CAN REACH UNTO THINE EYES will be on view at Gagosian Athens from May 13 through July 31.

All images, STERLING RUBY 2021 © Photography Boris Kirpotin, April 2021 Athens, Greece

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