In the video, we see prisons dotted across the landscape of California; rolling hills, deserts, forests, farmland and rural areas open up onto sites that resemble cities, often with populations the size of small towns. Connections can also be drawn to the ways in which war zones and conflict areas are shown in the media, via distanced surveillance footage or drone reconnaissance. A repetitive, structural rhythm is created as the video cuts back and forth between the landscapes and the sites of the prison grounds. We are confronted with the stark contrast between the majesty of the expansive landscapes and the massive institutional architecture of the prisons.
The artist has taken cues from Bruce Nauman’s video installation Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), in which a young man is shown frenetically playing a drum set. Here, Ruby himself has composed and performed the accompanying drum track. The drumming also acts as an uncomfortable and insistent disruption. The soundtrack slows as the video progresses, ending as a heartbeat, and suggesting the distortion or elongation of the passage of time.
Both the medium of video and the architecture of prisons have been subjects for the artist for nearly two decades. In his previous videos, Ruby has played with questions of criminality and confinement, sometimes performing himself in situations that approached, but always ultimately suspended, narrative. In early collage works, Ruby explored the structures of the prison tier system as defined in both physical and psychological space. And in SUPERMAX 2008, the artist’s first major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the artist correlated the architecture of the museum with that of the California prison system. SUPERMAX was a reference to American maximum-security prisons, where prisoners in solitary confinement can be on lockdown for up to 23 hours a day. In all of these works, the artist connects a state of mind with the state of incarceration. A deep-felt sympathy to the injustice of these institutions coincides with a psychological understanding of the power wielded by these systems, and how this shapes the American psyche.
In the upstairs gallery, the artist presents SKULLS, a new body of sculptural works. These oversized, animal-like skulls are in fact facsimiles of the underlying armatures of Hollywood special effects creatures. Some of their surfaces are realistically bone-like, while others are obsidian, and some appear raw and mottled as if their skin has been removed. Ruby has overlaid each with large, brightly colored wigs and eyes that add an element of levity to the apotropaic beasts. Their bared teeth and bulging eyes, evoking exaggerated and heightened emotions, also resemble the Hannya masks of Japanese Noh theater. In the context of the exhibition, and its title DAMNATION, they also recall Cerberus, the mythological multi-headed dog who guards the gates to the Underworld. The sculptures act as harbingers, standing at the crossroads between life and death. Fierce, if also rife with fantasy, they present a departure for Ruby and a counterpoint to the austere and disquieting imagery of STATE.
One hundred percent of the artist's exhibition proceeds from STATE will be contributed to the ACLU of Southern California, an organization with initiatives to end mass incarceration.