The notion of the "abject" came into the art world in an appropriately half-assed way, as a show organized for the Whitney Museum by students in its "independent study program" in 1993.
Subtitled "Repulsion and Desire in American Art," the survey focused on what might be called female troubles -- those very physical and very real elements of sexuality that men don’t typically find sexy. The exhibition included works by Louise Bourgeois, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and that maestro of the anal phase, Paul McCarthy.
Since then, the idea of the abject has spread like a fungus, and today is the attribute that few avant-garde artworks can do without. Their anti-social truancy is all that separates "advanced" art from our flourishing mass culture. It makes you think: Long gone is the time that contemporary art was about abstraction taking us to new spiritual heights.
A case in point would be Sterling Ruby, the 30-something Los Angeles artist whose Minimalist sculptures defaced with smudges and scratchiti took the art market by storm in 2008. One especially clear example was exhibited at Metro Pictures, a sculpture of two geometrical forms smeared with schmutz and titled Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity.
These modest thoughts framed an evening visit to the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, where curator Barbara London had arranged a special screening of five of Ruby’s videos in collaboration with his Chelsea gallery, Foxy Production. (Though shot on video, they took the form of "films," and were projected in MoMA’s theater as part of a "Modern Mondays film screening." )
The notion of abjection provided a way into a group of short videos -- 61 minutes in all -- that were otherwise fairly hermetic. Like a lot of artist’s films and videos, Ruby’s are not what you would call "narrative structures." Rather, they’re more like drawings or sketches, in which each video tries out a single idea, rather than telling any kind of story.
For what it’s worth, though the artist likes to work across disciplines in many mediums, these five vids struck me as the work of a sculptor -- though they do give a broader sense of Ruby’s artistic practice.
Thus, the short vid Hole (2002) illustrates a voice-over of some retail employee relating how he hated his job so much that he would stuff store stock into holes in the wall, costing thousands in lost inventory, with footage of several actors putting stuff through a gap in a plaster wall.
Similarly, Cartographic Yard Work (2009), shows the artist in an industrial yard, surrounded by piles of construction debris and the like, filling in small holes. (A task undertaken at the request of his landlord, Ruby informed the audience, as he himself had dug the holes, which were behind his studio, apparently as a kind of meditation).
This video especially seemed to be the work of a sculptor, particularly the "anti-form" sculptors of the 1970s, though Ruby’s approach seems more downbeat, even nihilistic, than those Postminimalist exercises in matter, volume and texture could ever be.
In Dihedral (2006), on the other hand, the image is pure prettiness, a chromophonic spectrum of color and movement presumably effected by dropping colored inks into an aquarium. The soundtrack for this nutrient-free eye candy is some gnomic scientific text, possibly about form in space but, really, impossible to follow -- in its own way, nutrient-free as well.
Most abject, and decidedly avant-garde, is the final video in the series of five, called Triviality (2009), and featuring an endless -- actually it was only nine minutes long -- scene of a Los Angeles porno actor, Tom Colt, standing naked in a bare room masturbating, trying unsuccessfully to bring himself to orgasm. The film’s approach is all Body Art and very little eroticism (and is not at all coy like the accompanying still).
The artist said he was interested in his actor’s sense of embarrassment (at his professional failure to ejaculate on cue), but to the viewer the performance was a challenge to watch. Though the action in Triviality is utterly familiar -- and certainly much can be said about it -- its presentation was offensive first of all. Which is what makes it an emblematic avant-garde gesture.
The longest video, at 36 minutes, is titled Transient Trilogy (2005), and comes the closest to being a real film, with an actor, a setting and something of a narrative scheme. Ruby himself plays a bum, who transits a marginal landscape, neither nature nor manmade, where he occupies himself crafting what can only be called artworks from string, cast-offs and other bits of trash. In one scene, he makes a minor splatter painting on a rock with red fingernail polish.
As a filmmaker, Ruby lingers longingly on his "nonsites," woods and streams on the city’s fringes, contaminated by urban runoff and trash, its trees spotted with carved initials and graffiti. He seems to be saying, as an artist, this is my place, and I love it.
The vid also has an odd interlude, in which Ruby, this time playing the filmmaker, gives impatient and loud direction to his schizophrenic performer, who is off screen, and who invariably fails to understand. The hostility and aggression here stand out. They are the actual feelings that hide beneath the affectless shield of the avant-garde abject.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.