Through her practice and exploration, the Brooklyn-based artist Ruby Sky Stiler finds in the figurative representation of portraiture an approach to give women an empowered position, in objection to what the established archetypes may have dictated in the past. As she describes, her relief paintings are the outcome of blending hand-on processes and experimentation with all kinds of materials. Self-Portrait with Palette has been Stiler’s latest solo show, in which she takes a more in-depth perspective of the female figure.
For those who may be just discovering now your craft and artistry, how would you describe it? Was it always clear that you wanted to dedicate yourself to the arts?
I grew up between Maine and New Mexico, but I’ve been a New Yorker for 20 years, and I live in Brooklyn. I was fortunate because being an artist was in my family. Recently, I heard an interview with composer Stephen Sondheim who shared: “Making forms provides solidity and creates order out of chaos.” That resonates with me.
Your last exhibition was Self-Portrait with Palette. Portraiture is a resource that has been used a lot in the history of painting, especially for some artists to claim a representation. How did you become interested in portraits and where does this inspiration come from
Through my practice, I’m often exploring and updating established archetypes. For example, the historical trope of the portrait in the mirror is a common self-aggrandising gesture for a male painter. This would have been a way to elevate oneself and display prestige. In this exhibition, I placed the female figure —often the object— in that empowered position.
Taking a glance at the pieces of the exhibition, we can see a variety of interpretations of the female figure represented throughout the years, from childhood, motherhood and elderly age, either collectively or individually. What was the message you wanted to convey?
I’m thinking about the ways that women are unfairly represented: frozen, a solitary moment in time, a flawless thing. I’m including the other faces of our dimensional experience and allowing women to live.
Throughout history, avant-garde artists such as Paul Cézanne, Claude Manet, or Pablo Picasso have made some self-portraits. However, for female artists, this has not been such a common occurrence, as women have always been portrayed from a more romanticised vision as muses. In your iconography, you represent feminist imagery. Does the self-portrait symbolise a way of expressing your nonconformity around the representation of the different genders?
I’m interested in playing with —or correcting— our expectations around conventional gender stereotypes. For example, I was trying (and failing) to represent men in my work forever. I wasn’t able to find the right shapes. The forms were clunky and boring. Once I started to show men with their children, suddenly they became dynamic, emotional, and beautiful.
You truly have a particular style that differs from other artists. I would especially emphasise the extraordinary ability to create a portrait in a way that is distinctive from a conventional one, as we are used to. Could you explain to us what is the creative process behind your work?
My approach to figuration developed through years of experimentation. Beginning with borrowed iconography from a wide range of sources: from ancient sculpture to vintage fashion illustration, to cubism, to Louise Nevelson’s assemblage, to kids cartoons, and so on. My references are always changing and evolving, out of the mix my own visual language has emerged. As a principal, I often use geometric drawing tools to reduce figuration to its most elementary shapes.
It is noticeable how you create relief paintings by using materials such as acrylic paint or resin, paper, glue, or graphite on a panel. I am very struck by the reasoning behind using so many different elements, since the results you get are so unique. Do you always experiment and explore outside your comfort zone or are these materials that you usually feel comfortable working with?
Experimentation with materials is a huge part of my creative process. I’m always inventing new ways of working, refining, and altering my practice. I’m most excited when I have breakthrough moments with hands-on processes, that might be my favourite part of this whole thing!
I would also stress the amount of delicate and graceful small detail that can be appreciated in your exhibition . From the lines with different shapes or ornamental motifs to the colours. Which details do you give more importance when making a portrait?
Thank you for noticing. I believe everything is important, I don’t think you can reduce it down to its parts, each layer builds the whole.
Throughout your professional career, you have been inspired by multiple artistic currents, such as the iconography of ancient Egyptian art, as well as using manual techniques such as the traditional indigenous pottery from Mexico. I am very curious to know if there are any artistic movements you are currently researching.
I was so inspired and uplifted by the current Sophie Taeuber-Arp retrospective at MoMa, her colour, pattern, composition, and graceful non-hierarchical dexterity between mediums, it’s incredible! I’ve also been learning more about the P & D (pattern and decoration) movement and feeling a kinship there.
Finally, I would like to know if there is any project you are currently working on and what are your future professional plans?
Yes! My solo show New Patterns is opening on 28th January 2022, at The Tang Teaching Museum, in New York. My relief paintings will be incorporated into a room-scale, sculptural mural which depicts a figurative tableau. The floor is occupied by a monumental sculpture which also functions as seating, and situates the viewer within the scene. I’ve been working with curator Ian Berry, and a monograph will be published alongside the exhibition.
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