Over the past five years, the Los Angeles–based artist Sterling Ruby periodically hired a helicopter pilot to fly him and a videographer to see all 35 adult prisons run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) so that they could film them from the air.
“The thing that surprised me most was the scale—the density of these buildings and their distance from one another in a very large state,” Ruby said last night during a public conversation with Rita Gonzalez, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They were standing on the second floor of Sprüth Magers gallery in L.A., which is home to Ruby’s latest solo show, “Damnation,” through March 23. Below them, STATE (2019), was playing on a huge screen enclosed within black curtains, its booming percussion soundtrack occasionally seeping into the room.
It is a menacing piece, and also an uncomfortably beautiful one—classic Sterling Ruby, in other words—with high-resolution black-and-white tracking shots of industrial prison architecture flowing into scenes of California’s luscious topography over the course of 30 minutes. One might think of it as a dark companion to Steve McQueen’s 2009 Static, with that work’s circling helicopter shot of the Statue of Liberty replaced by an unflinching gaze on nondescript and rarely seen sites of incarceration.
Ruby was wearing a blue American Civil Liberties Union ribbon on his long black coat—he’s donating the proceeds from the sale of STATE to the organization. He said that, during the course of making the work, one of the prisons he filmed, Victorville, was taken up by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to detain migrants. “You start to think to yourself what the capacity of these prisons might be over the course of the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years,” he said, and that seemed like something important “to fight against.”
Spencer Windes, the annual fund manager for the ACLU of Southern California, was on hand and said that the group had filed suit against ICE and the Trump administration last year, alleging detainee abuse at Victorville. He also spokes of the organization’s Smart Justice initiative. “The goal of it is to reduce incarceration by half in the United States,” he said, “which would still make us the country that locks up the most people in the world—but it’d be better than it is now.”
STATE is Ruby’s first video in nearly 10 years and the most-high-production work he’s ever made in the format. (In late 2009, he showed the comparably gritty and similarly unforgettable video installation The Masturbators at Foxy Production in New York.) He also recently worked with specialists to build a recording studio in his art studio, which allowed him to create the work’s soundtrack himself. ”I put my first drum kit together since I was 18,” he said, with some satisfaction. “And I’ve just been drumming for the past two years.”
Gonzalez mentioned STATE’s relationship to Bruce Nauman’s 1988 video installation Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), which features a young percussionist going wild as a rat tries to make its way through a clear maze. Ruby talked about his thrill at first discovering Nauman’s art as a young man and watching that work repeatedly in the early 2000s when he was living in Chicago.
Ruby was standing next to a row of new sculptures—what appear to be hulking dinosaur or monster heads with neon-colored hair, lustrous eyes, and grotesque teeth—that he titled “SKULLS.” They’re frightening but strangely endearing, all of them based on an armature used for a creature in the Underworld film franchise. The artist worked on them with a friend long involved in the prop business in Hollywood and said that experimenting with their color and shifting jawlines made him feel like a plastic surgeon.
The sculptures seem like a promising foray into something new for Ruby—an abject, antic realization of the bodies that have always loomed just beyond the realm of figuration in his fabric works or even his large ceramics, which can sometimes suggest burial urns or coffins. And while the pieces are very different from STATE, they bear a kind of oblique, disturbing relation.
In the process of making the film, traversing the state and studying prison architecture, Ruby said, he was startled to realize that “the way that the divisions are set up, and the way that the inmates are funneled, when you start to look at these structures aerially, you start to see how many look like faces and how many look like skulls.”
“The structures seem to kind of mimic what is happening on the inside,” Ruby said. “That shook me.”