Ruby Neri Interview
Ruby Neri is a San Francisco born artist, currently living and working in Los Angeles. She received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from the University of California.
Lucien Smith: If you can maybe just describe your introduction to art? I read your father Manuel Neri was an artist? Can you tell us a little about him and his practice?
Ruby Neri: Yeah, my dad and my mom were both artists. It was just a part of my life. I kind of always wanted to be an artist. I didn't really know anything else. I grew up among art my dad collected, mostly art of his friends, artist like Peter Voulkos, Bob Arneson, John Brown, Viola Frey... So many artists from the Bay Area were a part of my life. It was really intuitive in the sense that there wasn't really anything else I was going to do aside from becoming an artist myself. My dad had an amazing life, he was part of the Beat Generation, he was at the first reading of Howl, and then was a part of the Bay Area Punk Movement when he taught at Davis. He was also part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. So a lot of his influences fell upon me and my work definitely.
LS: Do you think that limited or accelerated your interest in art?
RN: It was definitely both. I mean it was really hard when I was younger. It took me a long time to find my voice, and it was kind of crazy to come from all that because there was so much I was up against in terms of finding myself, finding my independence and because it was so all around me, you know, it's was kind of hard to figure out what I was going to do with art. I never made sculpture, until I was much older because my dad. It was just overwhelmingly overbearing when I was younger but I sort of just mucked it and yeah. Now I'm super grateful for my dad's life and like the influence that he had on me for sure because it's become my personal history.
LS: He taught at San Francisco Art Institute? Was that while you were studying there?
RN: He taught there in the sixties way before I was born. He taught at UC Davis for a really long time and a lot of his students, became teachers at the art institute. He taught Bruce Nauman and Nancy Rubins. He was a huge figure in the Bay Area art scene and so my teachers were constantly comparing his work to my work, which now looking back is totally crazy. But I mean I had a good time in Undergrad. It didn't really consciously effect me. I didn't really think about it until much later.
LS: What was it like as an undergraduate? Do you remember some of your earlier influences where those mostly people around you?
RN: It was so amazing, the Art Institute was the kind of school that encouraged all this dabbling in all the departments. So as a painting major I was really familiar with the photography department and the print making department, you could really use the entire school. It was a 24 hour campus. It was just so much fun. I think I was the first of two teenagers that started there, the average age when I in 89 was around 25. They didn't really recruit out of high school until much later. It was really different. But um, George Kuchar was teaching in the film department, San Francisco had this incredible underground scene and I mean it's still there but barely. I think the Art Institute was definitely where that stuff was cultivated.
LS: Is that where you met Barry McGee and other members of the Mission School? Were they going there at the same time as you?
RN: Not as many people from the Mission School scene went to the Art Institute as people would like to think. I don't even know if Barry got his degree while he was there. I didn't really meet him at school, he was a little bit older than me and so we met doing graffiti actually out in the street (laughs). I never really saw him at school. I think he left the year that I started. I would see him sometimes in the print making department. I was dating Craig Costello, who started KrinkTM, and he went to the Art Institute but kind of a little bit later for photography. He was a really, really good photographer. He totally archived us doing graffiti. Someday I'm sure he's going to put a book out and it's going to be such a cool thing. It was a total document of just the four of us, me, Craig, Barry, Margaret, and couple other people. It was a really small scene. A lot of art students were doing graf as well. I had never heard of New York graffiti, I didn't know anything about tagging or anything like that.
RN: I was sort of doing it for fun, but because I met Craig who was from New York and he of course grew up with it, I finally learned a little bit about the history of graffiti. I was way into it before I learned about New York graffiti. Barry was just a huge influence on everyone and Alicia McCarthy was my best friend at the art institute but she didn't do so much graffiti, but she's a huge part of what people call the Mission School.
LS: Would you explain what the Mission School was? RN: It's kind of ridiculous that they call it that. LS: Where did that come from?
RN: Someone just started calling that group that way after.... As a sort of catch all for the 90s(laughs). It was just like a real small circle of people. I mean it was pre internet and you know, we were just a small group making art and going on the street and what have you. I didn't really meet Chris Johanson till much later because I left the bay area in late 96 and Chris Johanson started showing his work in 96 in San Francisco. I met him in LA months later.
LS: Got It.
RN: I was just sort of part of that because I did graffiti and what have you. But Barry really turned it into a career, you know? the whole mission thing. My doing graffiti was more of like a social activity. I was still doing actual art, like studio work on the side.
LS: There was a separation between the two for you at the time
RN: Yeah, for sure. It was sort of ridiculous to transfer that into the gallery me for some reason Barry was really good at it.
LS: What was it like? I mean specifically being a female in the early nineties and doing graffiti.
RN: I mean I was bananas. I would go out by myself and just paint on the street (laughs) back then guys would walk around with literally a bucket of paint. If you wanted to paint with a bucket and a brush you could. It was sort of like this crazy free for all. There were so many art students doing it. I first started going out with this other guy and he would paint these dogs on the street with bucket paint and then he was like, "you have to do the same thing over and over again. Something you can do really quick." And so I decided I'll do a horse (laughs) it was just so ridiculous. But then I got super into it. I would go home from school late at night and I would just tag all the way home and paint, it was just freeing, no one was around. But then people started talking and saying, "Oh, you should meet Barry Mcgee he does graffiti." I couldn't handle it but the cops didn't care and met him when he was painting a wall for the Yerba Buena Center. He was painting this mural that became kind of a big deal, in terms of influencing a lot of writers in San Francisco. I met Craig "KR" I in a subway station, he was tagging in this book or something and I was like, oh my God, that's "KR". It was so weird, that's how small the city was. You could just find people if you wanted to, because there was so few people doing it. Craig knew a lot of real writers and that sort of turned me onto people that were already doing old school graffiti. We would go out every night, we were totally insane. But as a woman there was never really any challenge, I think because I just started it on my own. I was doing it so much by myself.
LS: You had respect.
RN: I think because I was like up so much, you know what I mean? I didn't even realize like how much of a feat that was. I was just sort of like, I'm into this. I just wanted to be everywhere. I was bananas.
LS: Reminisce, that was the name that you were going by?
RN: Yeah, that goes back to me not having a tag. I would write right these words with the prefix "RE", like “Recidivism”, every time I did a horse, and so then someone was said, “you have to write the same thing over and over again! You need a tag!" So then I started writing Reminisce, which was just this ridiculously long word (laughs), it was really funny.
LS: So that's San Francisco, and then you attended UCLA for graduate school?
RN: Yeah. I applied to one school and I got in. I moved to LA in 96 when I was 25, and then I stopped doing graffiti entirely. I kind of maxed everything out in San Francisco, it was sort of incestuous and crazy and I needed a break. Craig and I had a huge breakup and I was just over it, so I left. It was nice to go to LA and just make studio work. I just completely stopped doing graf, it was kind of amazing.
LS: What was that transition like?
RN: All this stuff happened in San Francisco, personally, and I just wanted to leave. So UCLA was a huge relief. It was an escape which I really needed. I was happy to be in the studio and to go back to painting, and then I got really into sculpture. I thought I was going to go back to the bay area after school, but I never did. I just stayed in LA because I created so many strong ties here. I became really close with Evan Holloway and Karin Gulbran, all these artists that I still know. I created a really strong community here and thats really was what kept me here. It was really nice to be away for my personal history, like my dad, I felt a lot freer to pursue my interests with art. LA was such an amazing city. It wasn't as social as San Francisco, you don't just walk around the street and run into people. You are in your studio, you spend a lot of time alone. It's just a really different place, and I think I really enjoyed that.
LS: What was it like making art in a new setting?
RN: It it took a long time for me to find my place here. I showed at China Art objects for a long time, like right when they opened. That was really amazing. That was around 1999, and then I didn't really make work for awhile. I took a break for a couple of years and started working for Mike Kelly. I worked for Mike from around 99 to 2003.
LS: What was that like?
RN: It was amazing. I really had a connection to the people working there, and Mike was such an amazing person. I was working a lot for him, I did a lot of Memory Ware. It was a really fun time and I was making some work on my own and then I got married and did a show at China art objects in 2005. Dave Kordansky saw it and he had his gallery in chinatown then, I was really unhappy with China Art objects so I switched to Dave’s around 2008.
LS: You had your first show with him in 2009?
RN: Yeah, it sort of panned out.
LS: Your show Slaves and Humans, that was your latest show at Kordansky?
LS: Does that title refer directly to the sculptures themselves or is it pertaining more to the exhibition?
RN: It really came out of the pieces themselves. The work of Michelangelo called Slaves the figures that were sort of still embedded in marble and what have you, that was a huge influence on the title. But also the work that I've been doing, these ceramic pieces are so much about these power struggles within human relationships. Primarily from a female perspective obviously. They were so much about this struggle or need for freedom. Although the imagery is really freeing my interests is literally about power struggles, who's in control? Who is not? That show is the beginning of this whole body of work about the need for freedom and it's all from a real personal perspective.
RN: People really tie the work that I've been doing lately to the #metoo movement. In a way it doesn't not come from that, It's just sort of weird timing. I started this body of work in 2015. The work doesn't really have a feminist agenda necessarily, it comes from a real personal place from my personal experience and that experience is female because I'm a woman. When you look at my 2009 show I was making sculptures and then I was making ceramics and then I was making paintings and it got so schizophrenic for me. I was making all these different bodies of work.
LS: It seems here that things really began to come together.
RN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And so it came together in an even a broader way too because now that I'm just spraying the glazes it kind of goes back to my graffiti even, so it was like full circle.
LS: I definitely noticed some of those elements from graffiti transitioning into your work and couldn’t help but wonder how that came about and if that was a new development or something that you've been working with for awhile?
RN: Well it came out of just working with clay actually because I really didn't want to use true glaze with these pieces because I was so interested in the form itself. Glaze is so opaque and goopy and I just didn't want to cover up the form and that sort of came out of a sculptural sensibility. I didn't want to hide the objects so much and I really loved the clay itself. I wanted color but I didn't want it to be super opaque. So the first thing that came to mind was "I can just spray this stuff on." I didn't want to use a brush, I didn't want to "paint" paint and so I thought of just using airbrushes and so I was not intentionally thinking of graffiti per se. But then when I started using it I was like, wow, this is really fun. It was totally reminding me of the "mark making" I was doing when I was doing graf. the whole reason why I think I was so attracted to graph and why I like clay is that everything that I've ever used has this sense of immediacy, you know? I really need to just pick something up, the materiality of the clay, the physicality of it is really appealing to me. There's not a lot of process, aside from firing, which is sort of after the fact. I just need to work with things right away.
RN: And so I think the airbrush gave me that as well, an immediate satisfaction. And then after I did that Tony Marsh who's this old ceramicist was like, "wow, no one's ever done that, I've never seen anyone use an airbrush with ceramics." And then it kind of took off from there. I love using airguns and I love using spray paint (laughs), And so it comes definitely full circle.
LS: Can you speak on the scale of your works?
RN: I never was attracted to the clay because of its beauty in a beautiful objects sense. I'm not interested in small, precious things. So I think that the scale that I work at is really referring to painting and is really referring to sculpture. I kind of react to the surfaces as I would a painting and to the object as I was sculpture. I think that that really comes about from not having done ceramics in school or not having had this whole history of ceramics infringed upon me. Painting has this intense history that I have a problem with, but I mean sculpture or three dimensional work is such a wide umbrella so anything goes. And so there's this freedom. Ceramics are just so uptight and guided by history. As a ceramics student you're just hounded with vessels and like ancient pottery. I'm just grateful that I didn't really have that, because I probably would not be making this work.
RN: I personally have a huge respect for traditional pottery. It's incredibly beautiful when people do it well. I don't want that lost, because I love it. I love making my own things for my house or what have you. It is very separate, but I love learning from it. When people are really involved in the whole science of glazing and what have you, it's amazing.
LS: When I was visited your studio you were saying how you were working between two different locations. The kiln you use is at the California State University in Long Beach? And you primarily work alone?
RN: Yeah, but at this point I'm going to hire assistants because I have such a tight timeframe right now. It makes my life insane when people help me because it's just so much more work for me, I have to go over everything that they do and reshape it. So it's really physically demanding. I mean, it already is by itself, it's intense.
LS: How does that make you feel?
RN: I mean, I'm grateful that people love the work. I'm super, super grateful, but it's intense. It's physically so draining. I have two solo shows this year and I'm so happy, but it's fucking so tight. It's a happy, tired, but I'll be really happy when this year is over. I'm just going to lay on the beach or something. And then having a kid also, it's like, oh my God, I'm just tired all the time. But I mean, I love the work that I'm making. I wish I didn't have to drive to Long Beach everyday that's for sure. I'm working on trying to get this set up in LA where I could have a kiln, I want a range of things available to me with ceramics.
LS: Perhaps this hard work will lead to that.
RN: Yeah. Yeah. Right now I'm just working as much as I can it's super fun being around the students and what have you, but it's draining. I mean, it's funny because as an artist or at least in the past I've spent a lot of time alone in my studio and so it's nice to be social and be around other people.
LS: Maybe there's a balance there between having assistants and having your own space. RN: Yeah.
LS: I know you mentioned before your interest in marble and some other materials? What's on the horizon? What are your future future projects that you are envisioning?
RN: I definitely want to work with stone. I'm probably gonna go to Italy and just like look at it and then come back because I'm so busy right now (laugh). But yeah, that's for like future projects for sure. I'm super excited to do that. I just got to make it through this year without like falling apart. Yeah, no, no more two solo shows in one year thats for sure.