Nicolas Ruston

Deliver Us From Spin
Essay by Christa Paula


Seven years ago, Nicolas Ruston was invited to give a painting
demonstration for the students of his former school, St John’s
Comprehensive, in Epping. By his own account, he was smarting
from a relationship break-up, feeling angry and reckless.
Equipped with an MDF board, some random materials,
household paint and a handful of images from his vast collection
cut from newspapers and magazines, he entered the classroom
wholly unprepared. Ignoring his eager audience, he began by
throwing layers of paint at the wood, slashing and dripping the
liquid onto the surface and proceeded to ferociously attack it
with razor blades. To the astonishment of his unwitting pupils,
from this unleashing of raw emotional physicality emerged a
portrait of a young, cigarette-smoking Brigitte Bardot and the
seminal work of Ruston’s mature style.

At this point I would like the reader to pause for a moment
and re-examine the introductory paragraph. Do you accept this
story as true? Or has the liberal use of sensationalist adjectives
triggered misgivings or doubt, thus consigning it to the realm of
spin? If so, has your mind completely rejected this story as hype
or has it reconstructed it in accordance with your own
experiences, knowledge and desire?

From his earliest investigations of iconic imagery and popular
culture, beginning with Bardot (2000) and his well known
Superman series from the same year, these questions have
underpinned Ruston’s art practice. A cast of characters, usually
appropriated from the print media, assist his visual quest to
reveal a truth beyond the facade. Thus, in Ruston’s work, what
you see is not what you get! Instead, signs are subverted,
myths shattered and overlaid with equally contradictory ones.
Incongruous juxtapositions of figure and text, ranging from
the whimsically absurd to the outright sardonic add a strong
conceptual component to the work. His idiosyncratic materials –
MDF, supermarket shelves – and methods of execution –
dripped, splashed, sliced, carved, or in the form of silicone
applied with a caulking gun – serve to emphasise this tension
whilst seducing the audience to investigate the physical
substructure of the work and, thus, also to query the subtext
of the image.

These reflexive elements, though certainly present in his
early work, exhibit increased depth and complexity in this most
recent collection. For example, while the title of Ruston’s iconic
scratch painting Target (2000) unashamedly footnotes American
Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns’ famous series of paintings, the word
below the central sign reads ‘Lights’. The viewer is invited to
interpret the red-hot circle with gold leaf halo and livid white
incisions in the actual sense of lights (car, theatre, spot etc.) or,
indeed, as a so-called ‘flash’ used in advertising. However, a
partially obscured word fragment points us in the direction of
smoking, and from there to the Lucky Strike logo, created by the
industrial designer Raymond Loewy (of Exxon, Shell and Coca-
Cola fame) during a huge campaign aimed at female smokers in
1942. In fact, Ruston’s fascination with “something as sinister as
smoking” in combination with beauty is well documented by his
2000 and 2001 celebrity portraits.

In comparison, his recent large scratch painting
advertising Indian Sue (2007) is, ostensibly, more difficult to
read. The figure of a kneeling, scantily clad Asian woman
inhabits the left-hand side of the composition. Her name is
splashed, Bollywood style, above her head; her nationality has
been given prominence. Two five-pointed stars, also rendered
in gold leaf, draw attention to the Genuine 44-FF, recalling
‘flashes’, a formal device which, incidentally, also dominates
Sex Doesn’t Sell, a work produced during the same period. Part
of the telephone number in the lower right hand corner has
been crudely updated by hand, in stark contrast to the almost
irrelevant geographical pointer above. This is an extremely dark,
vitriolic piece contemplating the ephemeral nature of the body
in association with commodity exchange.

All the more interesting that Indian Sue is an oversized
facsimile of a found object connected to a specific event. One
evening the artist surreptitiously observed a well-dressed white
man enter a London phone booth and angrily rip the copious
collection of cards advertising prostitutes from its walls,
crumple them up and throw them into the gutter. Ruston
retrieved this specific card, intrigued primarily by the physical
evidence resulting from the perpetrator’s anger. Indeed, the
cracks and bends of the original, crushed in the fist of an
incensed citizen, have been faithfully reproduced and deeply
gouged into the tormented surface; thus, whilst the emotive
quality can be intimated from the kinetic energy of the
execution, the narrative has been veiled and consigned
to the realm of personal experience.

Similarly, the creative impetus for the silicone painting Wife
Beater (2007) originated in a series of stories of a violent husband
told by a sister-in-law, the meeting of the alleged abuser by the
artist, and the harvesting of a mangled Stella Artois beer can
discarded by the accused. The contorted, yet balanced,
composition faithfully reproduces the twisted container,
whereas its fragmented shapes insinuate female form. The
visceral, soft quality of the material invites to be touched and
belies the physically demanding aspect of working with a
caulking gun. Employed both in construction as well as in
plastic surgery, the appropriation of silicone as artist material
intrinsically strengthens the male-female duality of this work.

Popular culture has long referred to the Stella brand
as ‘Wife Beater’. Contemporary urban myth ascribes this
colloquialism to the lager’s high alcohol content and the
supposed propensity of its users towards aggressive
behaviour, though a connection to the film adaptation
of Tennessee Williams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is,
in this case, more convincing. Not only does Stella, Stanley
Kowalski’s wife, suffer from alcohol-induced domestic violence,
but the white-ribbed sleeveless shirt worn by the young Marlon
Brando in the role of the anti-hero has since earned the
wife-beater label. Quintessential Ruston, the iconography
of this intriguing work is multifaceted. Ultimately, the viewer’
imagination as a vehicle to derive meaning is adequate only
in the realm of the universal; by implication, custody of Truth
remains with the progenitors of the drama.

Ruston’s treatment of pornography and comments on social
decay commenced with Sleaze (2000), a scratch painting
recording Soho’s dwindling red light district, and in responds
to Jack Straw’s (in his incarnation as Home Secretary) 2000
sex offences law reforms. Dominatrix (2007), a slice painting,
where the figure and linguistic signs raised in relief allude to
movable type printing, invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1440
and the stimulus for the information explosion, can be seen as
a continuation of this enquiry. Women For Sale (2007), executed
on a metal supermarket shelf, Sex Doesn’t Sell (2007) and Secret
Shopaholic (2007) find their place somewhere between his
prostitutes and the celebrity portraits, embodied by a sublime
effigy of a glamorous Judy Garland stamped with its title
We Love Plastic (2007).

Maintaining focus on the human body but accentuating its
wider socio-political associations is a set of paintings imbued
with a strong sense of moral verve investigating the sphere
of poverty, violence and drugs. Hug A Hoodie (2007) was
sourced from a photograph printed by the Daily Mail newspaper
recording the visit by Conservative Party leader David Cameron
to a deprived Manchester housing estate in February this year.
The reproduction portrayed a hooded youth making a gun
gesture behind Cameron’s head and was originally emblazoned
with the headline asking: ‘Do you still want to hug a hoodie,
Dave?’ Significantly, no text has been added by Ruston and
the mood of the original has been substantially altered. The
cheerless shapes scratched into the black and yellow surface
appear immersed in a nightmarish urban landscape; the suited
figure gazes beyond the edge of the picture plane, leaving the
youth standing isolated, column-like and very much part of his
environment. A specific historic incident has been universalised
and depicted in a manner reminiscent of the graphic novel. Kids
Are Still In Danger (2007) illustrates the disastrous fight between
‘G-Man’ Gerald McClellan and the ‘Dark Destroyer’ Nigel Benn
in 1995, which left McClellan brain damaged, blind and partially
deaf; the headline, however, implies child abuse. Rehab Is the
New Black (2007) is easily identifiable as supermodel Kate
Moss’s involvement with drugs connoting the recent flood of
public admissions to, and atonement for, potentially damaging
behaviour by celebrities in the service of public relations.

It would be tempting to analyse these works in light of the
artist’s biography. However, Ruston is notoriously private and,
thus far, no interviews have been published. From the little
information gleaned in conversation, we know that Ruston was
born in 1975 in Epping into a working class environment. His
father was an Olympic wrestling coach and was perceived by
the young Ruston as aggressive and controlling. Nonetheless,
the son followed the father into the sports club, a world of
discipline and brutality. One can, thus, only tentatively relate
Ruston’s propensity for implying deeper, altogether more
insidious narratives to his childhood. In addition, Ruston is
fundamentally an intuitive artist, increasingly assembling found
objects, images and texts in seemingly random combinations.
This reliance on the subconscious to create contentious
associations between linguistic and visual signs is no more
apparent than in his latest creations reacting to three well known
masterpieces by the Mannerist Bronzino (1503-1572), the
Baroque master Caravaggio (1571-1610) and the Spanish
surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989), respectively.

Based on Bronzino’s enigmatic and much-disputed mid sixteenth
century Allegory with Venus and Cupid,housed in the National
Gallery, London, Teacher Sex Scandal (2007) is a claustrophobic
and disconcerting painting. A nude adolescent is observed pullin
back the head of an adult woman, attempting to kiss her. Gone
are the bright colours and the playful eroticism of the original.
Iconographic attributes of Father Time (the hour glass), Cupid
(quiver and arrow), and Venus (doves), who is left grasping the
apple of discontent, and a number of figures have been
eliminated. The already crowded composition has been rendered
oppressive by the solid headline oozing pink (sexuality), an air
reinforced by the monochromatic colour scheme and excessive
chiaroscuro. The put to to the right of Venus has been neutered
(censored), whilst the composite figure next to him disappears in
the background. A bawdy erotico-philosophical work has been
morphed into a depiction of near rape, voyeurism and sordid
ambiguity. UK Body Survey (2007), derived from Caravaggio’s
masterpiece The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2), is equally
disturbing. A tenebrous cluster of figures is overshadowed by a
gaudy headline, alluding to a magazine survey on women’s body
image, promising a shocking revelation. Indeed, the scene, with
its obvious sexual overtones, is not for the faint-hearted. It depicts
the very moment when Thomas, after doubting the resurrection,
thrusts his finger into Jesus’ side and is, consequently, forced to
accept one of Christianity’s most enigmatic miracles. This conflict
between knowing and believing, between truth and illusion has
been commandeered, on one hand, as a discursive entry point
for the questioning of religious faith, and on the other as a vehicl
to carry Ruston’s continued inquiry into the meaning of physical
existence. It can be read as an argument for scepticism and the
rational process for the substantiation of fact.

In recent years, western artists have increasingly sought
inspiration from past masters, forcing a re-examination of the
originals in light of the contemporary pieces and, in a wider
sense, challenging the linear notion of influence in cultural
production. Ruston’s appropriation of these iconic images in
the service of his critical interrogation of pop culture is a case
in point. Thus, an image of deep religious meaning has no
more hierarchical ‘worth’ in his artistic vocabulary than
discarded cigarette pack, graffiti on the wall of a New York
brownstone or a headline in the Sun newspaper.

The provocative Sex Symbols Lose Their Flab (2007)
underscores this position by exemplifying Ruston’s inclinations
towards preposterous pairings of image and text. In this world
of advertising, nothing is sacred! Powerful signs equal consumer
response equals sales! Though the form of Dali’s original, Christ
of St. John of the Cross (1951) with its characteristic composition
has been faithfully reproduced, the deep black expanse of
firmament has been allowed to bleed into the lower part
of the picture plane; the landscape, and thus the grounding
of the painting in the mundane, has been omitted. Stylistically,
as well as in the usage of linguistic signs, Ruston’s Christ
as sex symbol is closely related to Bullies (2007). In both
cases, the impact is uncomfortable, even distasteful, and
certainly memorable.

Artists have explored possibilities for tension between
image and text since the late 1960s, primarily in response to
the growth of the advertising industry and its ever-sophisticated
combinations of visual and linguistic signalling systems in the
service of sales. Ruston certainly challenges these known
systems. By deliberately increasing the uncertainty of the
combined message through the use of contradictory idioms,
conceptual, iconographic and material, he elicits a strong
visceral response. One does, however, get the impression that
Ruston simultaneously abhors and delights in the Great Media
Swindle, and is at once participant and critic. But, as he recently
said, “It’s difficult not to be a hypocrite when you’re living in the
belly of the beast!”

Christa Paula
London, 2007