Los Angeles

Sterling Ruby, STATE, 2019, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 33 minutes 11 seconds.

Sterling Ruby, STATE, 2019, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 33 minutes 11 seconds.

Sterling Ruby

Skateboarders are doomed to certain forms of ineffable material intelligence. Zipping on a wheeled plank through the cityscape—where any crack in the sidewalk or knob on a public bench can open your skull like an egg—imprints the texture of urbanism onto your bones. 

By now, Sterling Ruby’s former stint as a professional skateboarder is barely a blip in his biography, but the efficacy of his catholic output, and of his ceramic work in particular, has more than a little to do with that embodied, kinetic relationship to the built environment—an antagonistic dance with civic architecture. Texture is Ruby’s language, especially when achieved through alchemies of destruction—the firing of a kiln, the ripping of bleached denim, the trampling of studio waste—so his forays into the slick and the anthropomorphic in “DAMNATION,” his latest solo show at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles, felt like a departure, evoking not a texture, but a feeling. A dark one.

The thirty-three-minute, single-channel video STATE, 2019, is a black-and-white aerial survey of all thirty-five adult state prisons of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Shot over five years with the aid of a videographer and a helicopter pilot, the video alternates views of the stark, sun-bleached compounds with postcard-worthy pans of puffy clouds, rolling hills, and coiling coastline. The visual dichotomy busts the tired binary of sunshine and noir in favor of a more banal (yet fitting) epithet that better encapsulates the dual potentiality of California’s unique topography: exploration and imprisonment. The pounding percussive soundtrack, performed by the artist himself, gives the film the air of an opening to a political thriller, building waves of tension that slow down, crash, fall apart, and provide just enough respite to gather themselves up again and continue. I scrawled something in the dark: “Why am I doing so much legwork to find meaning here?” I grew red, first from anger at the hollowness of the video (the press release calls it “both allegory and atrocity,” but the atrocity is nearly undercut by aestheticization, and the allegory is unclear) and then from embarrassment at needing to fill it. This perceived hollowness is part of the work’s strength. More often than not, morality in contemporary art is a mere set of optics, and the tools most of us have to assert moral authority—tweeting progressive bromides from phones made in horrific working conditions, discussing panel-approved “necessary” art that tries to nanny us all into just getting along—are about as satisfying as the almond-size pools of cum that Ruby’s ripped male porn stars haltingly spurt in his 2009 film The Masturbators. No one wants to walk about with moral blue balls, but that is exactly the feeling that Ruby seems interested in, and comfortable leaving us with. STATE suspends judgment. That the artist’s proceeds from the sale of the work will be donated to the Southern California arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates “smarter sentencing” to battle mass incarceration, obviously says more about his morals than does the work itself, displacing my question of legwork.

The suite of monstrous SKULLS sculptures upstairs, all from 2018, offered a less complicated and more immediate sense of tension. They were gorgeous, and frankly chilling, their tautness ironically aided by the addition of ridiculous, rainbow-colored yarn wigs and giant Gobstopper eyeballs. Far from apotropaic, the huge beastly heads, modeled after Hollywood special-effects creatures, embody the blockbuster trope of the not-quite-dead monster, ready to dart just when you think you’re safe. The thumping drum track is dropped for the viewer’s heartbeat.

If Ruby’s practice is a metonym for capitalism’s relentless subsumption of political acts into aesthetic styles, it makes sense that even his grungy solidity might melt into air. Ruby apes the tensions of modernism only to find new ways to grind on the rails of Americana. But he’s too embedded in the material processes of collage, film, painting, and sculpture to be content with merely shuffling around our iconography. If anything, he strips this weathered culture of its symbology and stomps in the dregs.

That’s Americanness.