London's first Sterling Ruby solo show at Britannia Street Gagosian

October 7, 2019 12:35 AM

In the middle of London’s kings’ cross lies Britannia street based Gagaosian gallery only minutes’ walk from the world-famous Central Saint Martin’s so the art aura is thick as fog in the London air. Sterling Ruby produced his first dedicated show in London ever although he has works shown at the Victoria and Albert museum from back when Raf Simons used some of his spray paint pieces in his dresses.

Words by @ligerprince

Images by @polinau and @ligerprince

New York

The show is in the largest of London gagosian spaces and was well needed as the works engulf the viewer, a tractor beam to the mind to the urge of the admirer.

The show entitled ACTS + TABLE contains 4 works from ACTS and one from TABLES. ACTS “absolute contempt for total serenity” is prisms of time and emotions held deep in dyed urethane blocks expressing his brutalist approach to a gentle desire, further pushing his idea of corrupting masculinity as a social construct set back in time.

The high white walls with the majority white staff and the essence of white wine are nothing new for blue chip galleries and Ruby’s work hacks this ideology in half with these pieces engulfing a sense of destruction of creation of something after the chaos due in time.

The second room contains one of his large cast iron pieces where he has entitled it TABLE (DOUBLE LAST SUPPER) once again pulling down the statues of past ideology to the modern-day constructs that we all so desire.

Ruby himself is as politically aware as he is visually hunting for further greatness and further creation. Within these two rooms we are fully engulfed by only 5 works. We walk closer, we close our eyes to imagine something more something less however we choose to construct our ways. These works from 2015 to 2019 of ACTS have not lost their edge of appeal even though they span from years apart and still have the desire to induce not just the intellectual but also the intellectual to his practice as one of the world’s most formidable artists.

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“It’s hard,” Durgin-Barnes tells me as I begin recording our conversation, “to balance becoming successful and staying true to yourself as an artist.” His entire life Durgin-Barnes has been fascinated by representational painting. As a kid he would read nature books and wander the wooded hiking paths of Washington state, trying to make drawings that capture the feeling, rather than the details, of being surrounded by nature. When he began working with oil paint he studied, and fell in love with, the “old masters:” Nicolas Poussin, Pierre Paul Prud’hon, Michelangelo. Classical and neo-classical inuences are clear in almost all of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, which tend to feature incredibly detailed subjects in classically styled and noble compositions. The exact details of the scenes are less important than their arrangement, which conveys the feeling, and the message, of the painting. “I’m obsessed with allegory,” Durgin-Barnes mentions as he tells me about a holy grail conspiracy theory based in the angle of the shadow of an arm in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. The overwhelming allegorical message in Durgin-Barnes’s work seems to be one of deep discomfort with capitalism. Tiny features like the letters “U.S.A.” below the striped U.S. ag on the back of a dancing woman in The Initiation of Pineapple, or the McDonald’s sign stretching high in the air behind smoking buildings and dying soldiers in War, convey an Orwellian attitude toward an omnipresent capitalist order. Even the use of light and shadow to accentuate a burning temple in the background of Mayan on Day of the Zenith, or the brightness of the shattered glass on which wild dancing naked women are reected in Florida Ttripp convey a dark beauty buried beneath these disquieting scenes.

The subjects of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, the centerpieces, might be seen to convey this message on capitalism just as much as the details do, albeit in a dierent, more spiritual way. The classical style of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings as it is applied to many of their subjects (skillfully and seriously) seems to contribute, or amount, to something downright religious. Taken on their own, crack addicts, piles of trash, biker gangs, dancing naked women, sardines, and iguanas are not religious or spiritual. But by painting these subjects with such skill, and such mastery of classical and neo-classical techniques, Durgin-Barnes is able to impart mystical, immortal signicance to these martyrs of American capitalism.

For Durgin-Barnes, this mystical element comes from rock n’ roll music. Traditional harmonies and melodies (classical and neo-classical painting techniques) applied to (crude? vulgar? grotesque?) nonclassical subject matter. This rock n’ roll sensibility and passion comes across in Epithets of Integrity, Durgin-Barnes’s mistakenly dubbed ‘rst’ solo show at Treason Gallery in Seattle in

September, 2017. The show was a huge success artistically for Durgin-Barnes, opening several new platforms on which to sell his work (artsy.net/artwork/andrew-durgin-barnes/, treasongallery.com/andrewbarnes/) and garnering attention in the elusive world of art. Financially, Epithets of Integrity was lackluster at best. Durgin-Barnes only sold one work from the show, barely enough to cover his cost of living and painting for a month in New York. In an ironic way, Durgin-Barnes is as much a victim of the capitalist society to which he belongs as the drug dependent subjects of his paintings. In order to keep painting, to keep working, he has to sell his work. And after a dicult rst year in New York, he feels a temptation to turn down the amps, to tone back the rock n’ roll attitude so prevalent in his works in Epithets of Integrity. But I hope that for us, as well as for himself, Durgin-Barnes can nd a way to stay true to himself as an artist and to continue working in the capitalist society that seems to ignore him.

Syncretic Rituals

Per fumum—through the smoke. The word itself seems to remember that the use of aromas is deeply rooted in the spiritual. Merging cultures and religious inspirations, Goldie Poblador often initiates rituals around carefully arranged altars on which sit flowers, glass sculptures, scents, and collected objects. Her work is one of meditative collages and human interactions. Whether dancing, playing music, reciting personal prose or singing to living flowers, she creates moments of contemplation and sharing. Fascinated by the Japanese incense ceremony named Kōdō, she adapted it to enter her own artistic world of ritualized objects and personal recollections. Using glass instruments and essential oils, she performed a syncretic Kōdō ceremony, telling Philippine myths instead of traditional Japanese literature.

The mythology and cosmologies of the Philippine people continuously imbue her work. The legend of the ylang-ylang flower, in particular, has become a leitmotiv in which come together her passion for flowers, her sensibility for scents and her interest in the body and femininity. “Once upon a time there was a couple of gardeners who couldn't have kids. When they asked the Gods why they were unable to conceive, they were told that they were only meant to take care of plants. After much supplications however, the Gods finally interceded, at one condition: their daughter should never be touched by a man. The girl grew up chaste, careful not be touched by any man. But one day, one of her suiters gave her a flower, their hands touched and she disappeared to become the ylang-ylang flower.” As avatars of this mythical woman, Goldie Poblador has created a series of small glass sculptures evoking a female body transforming into a carnal flower. Although these are almost abstract objects, the powerful white flower's scent and the tenderness of melted glass give them a form of elusive and vulnerable sensuality.

“The Thing to Miss Most”

Most of Goldie Poblador's work draws from memories of her life on the stifling belt of the Equator. The immersive nature of smells, she believes, allows people to step into someone's memory. Her most recent performance, entitled The Thing to Miss Most (2018), in collaboration with Indian

dancer Ankita Mishra, was built on their respective childhood memories as well as experiences as immigrants, weaving together movement, poetry and memories transcribed into metaphorical perfume recipes.

A form of nostalgia also emanates from her work as she evokes the negative changes affecting nature in her homeland. In one of her earlier projects she collected and preserved the smell of the Manilla river. “The water used to be good when I was young, she explains, but then it became really polluted. I wanted to make a scent project to state how it changed between my childhood memories and when I was 21.” The result has the butyric smell of bad eggs and rotten fish, both a literal and symbolic evocation of the polluted waters. Over time the project has grown to become a whole collection of scents, gathered or concocted from various rivers as well as from the urban landscape. Contained in delicate glass-blown bottles of various and intricate shapes resembling deep sea creatures, these olfactory snapshots bear a strong yet poetic statement.


Despite the lack of intersubjectivity in their perception, Goldie Poblador succeeds in embodying ideas and concepts into scents. Her associations of various aromas with the things they are symbolic of, is at the same time profoundly personal and immediately understandable. Her piece entitled Wasted Youth, for instance, smells like sampaguita, a Philippine flower collected, stringed and sold on the streets by destitute children. In another piece the smell of a mango on the verge of rotting evokes the opulence and decadence of Imelda Marcos, president Ferdinand Marcos' extravagant wife. And when she sought to interpret the smell of loss, she worked with a chemist to try to reproduce the smell of iron, which is only triggered by the human skin and thereby cannot exist in its absence...


On a pure sensory level, the artist is inspired by the idea of correspondences between the senses known as synesthesia. In the 19th century, perfumer Septimus Piesse invented of a gamut where each musical note was paired with a smell. Based on her own personal gamut, Goldie Poblador created various installations and performances in which she translated musical compositions into scent notes—or vice versa—often adding colors into the equation. Taking over a whole space with swirling colors and scents, her Flower Dance (2016) installation, inspired by the quiet Japanese art of floral arrangement, is composed of natural and artificial flowers presented in thin glass stems lightly hung from the white walls. Each flower has been given a new scent according to its color, confusing our perception to create a new experience, inspired by the holistic way indigenous people from the Philippines perceive the forest. Roses are blue, violets are red, and the artist, through her uncanny floriculture, deceives our mental representations. Goldie Poblador's work addresses the spirit, the emotions, the intellect, and the body in a sensual, fragile and transient way. Everything

you'll see, everything you'll smell, everything you'll feel, you won't be able to hold on to. Because, as she says, “you have to be ready to let everything go.”

© Clara Muller, 2018

Alexander Yulish was born in New York City in 1975. His father worked in PR and his mother was Barbara Pearlman, a famous artist and fashion illustrator. Yulish grew up near the Chelsea Hotel and spent his childhood surrounded by New York’s artistic elite. He learned to paint watching his mother in her studio as a young child, and went on to study fine art and English at Connecticut College. After graduating, Yulish moved to Los Angeles and worked a variety of jobs, including acting and setting up downtown music venues. Yulish continued painting on the side but only started, in his early thirties, to dedicate himself full time to his art. Since then, Yulish has had exhibitions in galleries around Los Angeles and New York City and has attracted the attention of art world heavy-hitters Eugenio López Alonso (founder of Museo Jumex) and JoAnne Colonna (Brillstein Entertainment partner), among others.

Yulish’s paintings are composed of shapes -- lines, circles, squares -- that hint at familiar subjects. In his earlier work the subjects hinted at were often large, human-like subjects. The Things You Said, for example, features a hand with painted red nails holding a coffee mug. The hand is attached to an arm, which is attached to a multi-colored torso made of various shapes and lines, which belongs to a person reclining on a couch. But the closer you examine the reclining person, and the rest of the painting, the harder it becomes to discern the body parts in any detail. Many of Yulish’s early paintings have this effect -- it’s largely a result of the shapes used in the composition of Yulish’s paintings, a line will form the outline of a torso and the leg of a chair in the background, or a pattern on the floor of the room, depending on how you look at the painting. In this way Yulish’s earlier work presents us with a paradox: in order to see what the subjects of the paintings are, we have to pay close attention to the details, but the closer we look, the less distinct the figures become.

This quality of Yulish’s paintings is probably a result of his studio practice. Yulish makes his art in staggered layers of acrylic paint. He starts with some shapes and lines, as though he were making any old abstract portrait. Then he adds a second layer of shapes, lines and figures, blending the new images with the old. Out of the chaos, figures and subjects begin to appear. Two intersecting lines could become a lamp, or a mirror, or a wall, depending on how Yulish feels and what he sees in his mind’s eye while he is painting. Yulish continues drawing until, emotionally and artistically, he’s ready to move to another part of the painting. As the image comes together, Yulish adjusts minor details in color and shape. Whether a torso will be blue and red or blue and yellow depends on the other parts of the painting. The finished work has to convey what Yulish was feeling

and thinking while he was painting. If some color or figure does not do that, it has to go. This lends a powerful honesty to Yulish’s paintings, they are as truthful as they are visceral.

But all of this is old news for the 43 year-old Yulish, who has been working diligently and excitedly on new work. Yulish’s latest paintings, which were shown at a small private exhibition in Watermill, mark a thematic and stylistic departure from the subject-centric works he made earlier in his career. Yulish still hints at animal and human subjects with the figures in his new paintings, but he does so less often and more carefully. The shapes which form the subjects are more ambiguous in Yulish’s new work -- a squiggly line forms what appears to be a human face, but could just as easily be a clock or some other part of an animal -- but the distinctions between the subjects are clearer and more precise. Because the subjects are more abstract, though, it can be harder to interpret the meanings of Yulish’s new work. The shapes do not form so much as suggest, leaving room for subjectivity and disagreement. Yulish’s artistic development is bringing him closer to Jackson Pollock and further from Picasso, two artists to whom Yulish has been compared.

One last thing about the new paintings, they seem to have a lot of flowers. At least, for me. The flowers in Yulish’s new paintings are the kinds of flowers that could be birds, or people, or arms. Because, in many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has abandoned a subject-background style of painting and image construction, he cannot rely on cryptic settings to convey his emotional and artistic state. Instead, Yulish has to communicate through the subjects themselves, through their details and their arrangement. In many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has obliterated the subject-background distinction by refusing to give prominence to any part or parts of the whole work. There are no guiding principles to help find the subject as there would be in, say, a room where the walls, the floor and the ceiling converge at a point in space. None of the honesty of Yulish’s earlier work is lost in his abandonment of the subject-background distinction because, presumably, he is still following his artistic (and emotional) instinct. The only difference, now, is that the viewer might not receive the message. Or, the viewer might receive the message but decide to project their own meaning, their own emotions and thoughts, onto the work. Either way, Yulish’s honesty remains throughout his new work, challenging our interpretive and artistic sensibilities as viewers in ways that Yulish has never done before. And, most importantly, reminding us that it feels good to be slapped by a new aesthetic quality every once in a while.