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Inside the large, darkly curtained main room of Sprüth Magers, slow moving imagery of what looks like a military compound flows by on a large screen, accompanied by pounding, percussive music. The footage drifts from one sumptuous, black-and-white aerial shot to the next, interspersing sublime West Coast landscapes with the campuses of California’s 35 adult state prisons. One image features buildings layed out in a form reminiscent of a skull. The video, Sterling Ruby’s STATE (2019)—the centerpiece of his current exhibition DAMNATION—never veers from this vein: hypnotic, soothing, detached. I could watch it quite comfortably for a while in the soft darkness of the gallery, taking in its smooth contrasts of otherworldly landscape and grimly severe prison architecture. The percussive soundtrack sketches out a kind of mounting, never-released dread, reminding us to feel bad: in the age of global warming and the prison industrial complex, even the most pastoral canyon shadows cannot shake away the anxiety we now bring to the timeless awe of nature.
Upstairs, the mood shifts, slightly, with a series of tricked-out resin skulls, each titled SKULL, followed by an identifying number (all works 2018). Each skull has large orbs—some with animalian irises—in place of eyes. Fanged, carnivorous teeth and brightly-colored yarn wigs complete the ensembles. Ridiculous, scary, gross, extreme: Ruby’s skulls transmute fear—or the monstrous—into a clownish, discomfiting object. Fear, of the suburban, American variety, often plays on a fetishization of the other. SKULL (6900) in particular has a cheap, deranged quality: all lurid red eyes and unflattering orange mop-hair, like the soulless baddie of a horror film, eager to terrorize some innocent family.
Ruby’s SKULLs work within the lineage of the grotesque, which is to say fear repressed into the monstrous, then reined in by sculpture’s stoicism. As animalian forms, they have the disconcerting, slightly comic air of taxidermy, and the unreality of the fearful imagination run amok. Prisons, or the police-state, claim to offer assurances to this fearful imagination in the form of security—the vices and cruelties of crime sealed off in spaces that are subdivided, bunkered and contained.
Fear, or threat, transmuted into the art object begs the question of artistic detachment, and Ruby’s epic centerpiece STATE is habitable ultimately as affect. Rather than offering, say, a rumination on a prison’s internal dynamics, Ruby leaves us far outside, drifting and curious (though not exactly dying) to know what goes on within. The more vexing, ethical, terrestrial questions at hand within each prisons’ walls loom without ever quite appearing.
Sterling Ruby: Damnation runs from February 13–March 23, 2019 at Sprüth Magers (5900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036).