Sterling Ruby, DAMNATION, Spruth Magers Los Angeles: STATE (2019)

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

On the first floor of the Spruth Magers gallery is Sterling Ruby’s STATE (2019), a video running just over 30 minutes. Screened behind heavy curtains in complete darkness, the black and white video is a continuous string of footage filmed from a helicopter flying over 35 male state prisons in California. The images are accompanied by drum music that Ruby composed and performed himself.

This piece is hard to forget. A commonly accepted criteria for the success of a work of art is its ability to impact the audience that sees it. By that account I think STATE is an excellent work of art, since I can’t stop thinking of it, and can’t wait to return to the gallery. Why? I consider three distinct features of the piece to be key contributors to the said impact it achieves.

First is the vantage point. This choice was instrumental in enabling the impact of the scale of the architecture and the heavy contrast between its own strict, rigid, geometric style and the organic, homogenous, natural landscape surrounding it. Hand in hand with this choice is the initial use of the video medium. Both are successful as they create a sense of voyeurism and continuous examination. What we see feels less like a distant object, and more like a place, a phenomenon, an ongoing state.

The second feature is the color palette. Black and white serve the footage in several ways; sharpening the imagery and emphasizing the formal polarity between the landscape and architecture, summoning the visual heritage of ‘Film Noir’ that evokes tension and drama, and stripping the scenes from anything other than physical characteristics. The viewer can’t identify the time of day, the season of the year; the images are generalized just enough to assert their phenomenon and state-like character, adding to what the point of view achieves.

Last, and arguably most noticeable, is the music. While this is a visual piece, the music plays a crucial role in enhancing the visual elements previously identified and enabling their impact. The drum track is dramatic, but continuous enough to reach no climax. It has a sinister style but meditative qualities. It sets the mood for the state the viewer is witnessing. An evident affiliation of drum music is combat. These sounds are deep in our collective memory. Ruby catches our attention, leaving us alert and aware, ready to capture what his carefully constructed visuals are telling us.

Moreover, what we need to see is not coming up, it’s already here, the current state. It happened, it’s happening, and likely to happen in the future. That is unless Ruby’s video transcends indifference and translates its emotional impact into the action of protest and change. That, is to be determined (Notable is the fact that Ruby will contribute all proceeds from STATE - three editions and one AP - to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, an organization with initiatives to end mass incarceration.)

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