Sterling Ruby: Damnation
through March 23, 2019
Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
You wouldn’t know it from the Instagram flurry, but the pageant of mixed media mask sculptures featuring all those popping eyes, careworn metallic skins, technicolor fright wigs, and glistening fangs are not actually the central focus of Sterling Ruby’s current exhibition. The “SKULLS” (all 2018) despite being brilliant, grotesque, ritualistic, devil-muppet gargoyles that both delight and perturb, are in fact the colorful companions to the intended main attraction — the 33-minute video work, “STATE” (2019).
“STATE” is a single-channel projection installed in a temporary black box theater space immediately inside the front door of the gallery. From the get, the soundtrack permeates the entire space, a syncopated drum rhythm which creates both curiosity and wariness as it beckons from beyond the thick dark curtain. Ruby has composed and performed the score himself, in an off-screen performative gesture that both disrupts and amplifies the staccato percussion of the imagery’s progression. As the video cuts back and forth between drone footage of idyllic California landscapes and sites of some 35 state prisons that punctuate them, the drum line’s contrapuntos underscore the dissonant juxtapositions and abrupt barriers between natural vistas and literal prison-industrial complexes the size of small cities.
The presence of the soundtrack also functions, crucially, as an emotional and political orientation-marker in the video’s meaning. Were it silent, the images would be presented essentially without comment, and could pass for mere formal observation, a dry-eyed rendering of land-use weirdness. But with the pulse of the drums comes a more nuanced range of responses and deeper access to the allegory of injustice and environmental degradation represented by the mass incarceration infrastructure. Ruby also makes this clear by announcing his intention to donate proceeds from the work to the ACLU of Southern California, specifically due to their work to end corrupt prison practices. But it first and foremost expresses in the work thanks to the music.
Only after being absorbed into this sort of Allan Sekula-Fritz Lang hybrid for a time do you emerge and ascend to the second floor galleries, where the “SKULLS” await. Their sort of theatrically tribal, vaguely menacing and slightly ridiculous characters have more in common with the drums than the pictures in “STATE” because of their folkloric, plausibly ritualistic, performance/costume qualities. All made from the same head and jawbone armature and placed in a linear progression, their overall presence echoes an institutional, war-room, sacred vault kind of sensibility — with just a hint of backstage at the puppet theatre.
But get past the sensationalism of their almost garish appearance, and what you discover is that Ruby when operating in sculpture mode is capable of a series of variations in surface, color, texture, silhouette, illusion, and extreme optical gesture that are quite powerful as abstract equations. His form repeats, his colors accumulate in seemingly (but not at all) random constellations. It’s painterly, in its way. The pair of earth-tone skulls in “Twins” have a warmer feeling of what passes in this company for naturalism, or at least an organic softness and more textile-like material qualities. If the others feel tribal or performative, this pair feels homemade and personal; less “Wicked” and more “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Ruby makes a habit of operating in vastly different arenas of genre and medium as his ideas require, but this pairing is even more disparate than usual. Overall “Damnation” feels like two pretty much unrelated solo shows. The good news is, they are both fantastic.