“Crooked Under the Weight,” 2009. Exhibition at SITE Santa Fe.
Sandra Wagner: You frequently use cement slabs lifted from gallery floors,
some raised on tall rebar legs, as in the exhibition “Crooked Under the Weight”
at SITE Santa Fe (2009). The site-specific photomural Fwy Wall Extraction
(2006–07) alludes to what lies beneath a massive retaining wall, and
Extruded Masses (2013) consists of a tower of earthen blocks. How do you
see the link between sculpture and architecture?
Ruben Ochoa: “Crooked” featured site-specific works. When you lift up the
foundation of a museum space, it’s hard to imagine anything supporting
all those histories, and burdened by that much weight, things could get
crooked. It was really about engaging the space and believing that the
sculpture existed at that moment in time. So, I developed a body of work
that cuts into the fabric of the institutional landscape. Some chunks of
the old concrete chipped off naturally in the process of extraction, and the
sculpture showed that.
The title of one work at SITE Santa Fe, Get off me…I’m not on you! (2009),
comes from the push-and-pull dynamic between siblings. That interaction
also plays out between an artist and an exhibition space. I wanted to do
something that would insert itself into the gallery not simply as institutional
critique, that would highlight the give-and-take relationship. It’s as if the
pieces were moving from sculpture as an object to installation and archi -
tecture as character, animation, and sci-fi.
With Fwy Wall Extraction, I wanted to create an earthwork without physically
creating an earthwork. The Los Angeles freeway system is a huge monumentality
of concrete and performance—with traffic, there’s a captive audience
activating my intervention on a daily basis. So, I created a conceptual earthwork
on wallpaper made from a photomontage of various freeway landscapes,
printed on vinyl wallpaper and then mounted onto the bare freeway wall. I considered this a momentary adoption
of mind, sight, and site.
Once the vinyl was removed, it lifted the
pre-existing graffiti off the wall and became
a new installation piece, Wallpaper With
the Sound of its Own Removal (2008–09).
What was once the front became the back,
and the adhesive side, with its rich history
embedded into it, became the front. Each
section consisted of several 22-by-4-foot
strips, spanning 50 to 70 feet, hung from
inverted fence posts. It was shown with
an audio loop of various sounds from the
de-installation process—chipping hammers,
voices, machinery, and the general
hum of cars zooming by.
Fwy Wall Extraction, 2006–07. Wallpaper, view of installation on the I-10 freeway.
I link my work to architecture in terms
of the scale of my materials. Things are
what they are—a wall is the size of a wall,
rebar is rebar, and pallets are pallets.
There’s not much micro-macro in my work
yet. Viewers encounter repurposed items
and objects with an everyday familiarity
because they exist out there in the real
world. I guess the twist is how I transform
their meaning from its original context.
In Extruded Masses, the works begin to
resemble layers of substrata, now in geometric
shapes. Basic blocks of dirt dealing
with volumetric space, they’ve become
an action and a verb just like Folded Architecture.
Viewers recognize the dirt, but
the visual logistics take them beyond an
“aha” moment. Much like intriguing architecture
that has become iconic over time,
I hope to subversively affect culture in a
SW: An Ideal Disjuncture (2008), the Whitney
Biennial sculpture, involved many of
the materials that you regularly use: cement,
rebar, dirt, wooden pallets, galvanized
posts, chain-link fencing. What ideas do
you explore with them?
RO: These materials are embedded social
signifiers that I attempt to abstract.
Whether it’s a roll of chain-link fence coming
down and capturing movement in An Ideal
Disjuncture or tightly stacked pallets in
Building on the Fringes of Tomorrow (2010),
there’s a physical toll and presence of labor.
Rebar, pallets, and concrete have both formal
and informal economic connotations.
Here in southern California, the hidden
and invisible labor in these construction
fields references my own working-class roots. I hope to make that visible by
maintaining the sweat equity and use of scale, weight, and raw material.
SW: There is great continuity in your work, including the ideas of movement
and transition. While Disjuncture sweeps and undulates, Flock in Space
(2013) soars, and If only the world was flat (2013) sheds. Why are movement
and transition over time so important?
RO: I intentionally use everyday materials from the built environment that
change over time because there’s a beauty in that. Concrete’s going to crack—
it’s inherent in the material—and metal rusts over time. I welcome change
in the work, the potential of deterioration, the transition that makes the
context and content shift.
A lot of my work can look dynamic as a snapshot of a sculptural moment.
Some of my interventions only exist as photographs. But movement can
happen in the subtlest ways, in the most static-looking works. For If only the
world was flat, I mounted several slabs of a cut-out concrete foundation
with the underbelly of dirt still attached. What was once horizontal, now vertical,
gives a wink and nod to the archaic notion of the earth being a flat
plane. Exposing the thin membrane of dirt when concrete is poured is my
idea of kissing the earth. Once these 400-pound slabs were mounted, dirt
particulates fell over time, creating a nice powder on the floor. That’s the
poetics of the piece, since the dust makes you navigate around the
perimeter or forces you to step on the grit. It’s not just a visceral
experience of seeing the work but also of approaching it.
...that’s what she said, 2010. Galvanized posts and
concrete footing, 96 x 372 x 18 in.
The meaning in L.A. Riots in the Age of Minecraft (re)building
block no. 001–006 (2013) has shifted. I moved to Los Angeles in
1993, a year after the riots. When I began producing these works
20 years later, there were still empty lots from burned-down
structures fenced off with chain link. The hunks of cored-out dirt
and fence posts symbolize this limbo state—a prolonged failure
in civic rebuilding. This space signified what was once there, voids.
So, how do I core something out of the void? It was like creating
a sculpture in which these cores could be building blocks—creating
your own environment, like Legos. Since then, the reading of the
work has shifted. It no longer points to the riots but to the California
drought, probably because everyone’s using fake grass
and dirt these days to create their personal xeriscaping. It’s kind
of funny how that happens.
SW: There is a tension in your work, formal beauty butting up
against raw materials, as in Flock in Space (2013). Considering
this work with Disjuncture (2008), how do you see the evolution
of the dichotomy?
RO: I enjoy the use of tension. Sometimes it’s subtle, but it is there
in other works, such as …that’s what she said (2010), and my
rebar and pallet sculptures, including watching, waiting, commiserating
(2010). I use tension to suggest action in an otherwise
still sculptural object or installation, thereby leading up to the
idea of movement and transition over time. Flock in Space consisted
of roughly 100 posts. Manipulating 30-foot, galvanized steel
posts individually was like drawing in space. I use materials that have social
signifiers and try to capture the intriguing aspects in them, just like a flâneur
would investigate the city, looking at social divides. Flock in Space played off
of Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures in bronze and marble, sleek galvanized
steel contrasting against rough concrete footings. When the Nasher Sculpture
Center invited me to be a part of its citywide 10th anniversary exhibition, I
chose the Trinity River Audubon as my site. Before the Audubon Society restored
it, that part of the Trinity River was an illegal dumping ground. I fabricated
all the bent posts and concrete footings to look as if they came from the old
dumping site. The prior references, the quantity produced, and how they
emerged from the ground, breaking the horizon line
as chemtrails, led to the title Flock in Space.
SW: How have you developed the idea of conflict between
natural and built environments?
RO: The earlier works mimicked the city’s fractured
neighborhoods more directly. At first blush, the ideas
that I mine seem to address land versus man. But for
me, all of these landscapes are already manmade
constructs with a false sense of the natural. The brokendown
parts of a city seem to occur in areas of class
distinction. So, I would say the work is less about nature
versus the built, and more about the neglect of humanity
residing within and contending with the built environment—
essentially assimilation and survival.
SW: There is a subtle humor in …that’s what she said
(2010) and If I Had a Rebar for Every Time Someone
Tried to Mold Me (2007).
RO: Humor catches people off guard, and for just a
moment, the social mask they show to the world slips
off to reveal the child within. I try to integrate humor
every chance I get, whether in the intentional appro -
priation of musical phrases in the titles, the placement,
or the actual reference of the work. If I could just get
viewers to think twice. Whether they love a work or
hate it or laugh at it, if the use of humor leads them
to drop their preconceptions, my hope is it would resonate
with them more.
SW: For a time, your work was anthropomorphized,
as in Mi Pobre Corazon (2009) with its intentionally
broken wooden pallet, Get Off My Black (2010) with
its slumped pile of poured concrete, and hummin’
comin’ at cha (2009) with its spindled rebar legs.
RO: Many of the sculptures started out as conceptual
ideas and thoughts on paper. The fabrication maintains
the hand of the artist as the work is interpreted
from paper to a sculptural gesture. I wanted to take
these materials, which are used in a very rigid format,
learn how to manipulate and move them, and really
explore them. I learned their limits while making the
sculptures more organic and playful. In the end, it
looked like pieces of the built environment got up and
walked away. The pallets in Mi Pobre Corazon and
similar works are all cast directly from wooden forms
and manufactured in an assembly-line format just as
actual pallets are made. Just like wooden pallets, no
one concrete pallet is alike.
SW: There’s a science-fiction influence in your work.
RO: I like the hybridization of sci-fi and humor: you
can reference social issues in an entertaining way. I’ve
referred to everything from “The Twilight Zone” to Asimov.
In our media-driven world, we have access to
so much art. My intention is to detach viewers from the
more obvious heavy signifiers, and hopefully they will
walk away with a renewed interest.
SW: There are hybrid qualities to Russet Haze, Opus 1–3 (2015), If
only the world was flat (2013), and the three works in Cloudless
Day (2014). How do you view the spatial relationships of your
two- and three-dimensional sculptures? Were you influenced by
RO: I see drawing, painting, and sculpture in conversation. I start
with a drawing, practical interdisciplinary work, and it becomes
sculptural. I don’t have a specific Ellsworth moment, but he definitely
was an influence in my schooling in the ’90s, along with
earthworks, Modernism, and Minimalism. At that time, I wanted
to be the next Siqueiros. I was painting in a figurative, represen -
tational style. After taking a sculpture class, my paintings and
drawings became sculptural. I eventually abandoned painting,
only to revisit it 20 years later in a more distilled manner.
Adding dirt to Cloudless Day is an extension of my drawings.
I found myself able to investigate three-dimensional concepts on
paper through collage, pounding impressions of rebar on the surface,
watercoloring with dirt, or drawing with duct tape. As I con -
tinued my sculptural practice with the palette of steel, dirt, rust,
dust, cement, and concrete that I had already been applying to
works on paper, it made sense to apply those materials to works
like Russet Haze.
Contending with one planar surface has been quite liberating
for me. The work still deals with space and materiality, and
although it’s nice to take a break from the complex engineering
aspects of a sculpture, it’s still all about sculpture.
If I Had a Rebar for Every Time Someone Tried to Mold Me, 2007. Rebar, annealed wire
ties, and dobbie blocks, 112 x 198 x 222 in.
SW: What do you have planned for the near future?
RO: My fourth solo exhibition opened in March at Susanne Vielmetter
Los Angeles Projects with low metal sculptures that mimic
pulled slabs and folded architecture, where I’m working with form
and formlessness, and a couple of large-scale, rust-on-panel paintings.
In June, I had two rust paintings in a group show, “Rust Never
Sleeps: Growth and Decay in the Making of Art,” at Emily Carr Uni -
versity in Vancouver, where we’re scheduling a residency for next
year. I also have a solo show coming up at the Oceanside Museum
of Art in my hometown, which looks like it might be all new
sculptural works. And in February, I’ll be in the sculptural group
show “You Say Home, I Say Place” at the Denver Art Museum.
SW: What artists have influenced you?
RO: When I was in art school learning about art history, there was
an apparent gap, which led me to question why there isn’t more
information about Mexican or Mexican-American artists. I’m sure
there are some out there. So, I always had those issues with art
history. Now, when I do works in the built environment, the work
is linked to Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Gordon Matta-Clark,
and Walter de Maria. I found myself relearning a lot of this as I
focused on researching and learning about things not discussed
in class—funny how I’ve come full circle.
As opposed to rehashing or revisiting a particular art movement,
I see myself as if I were an artist of color existing then, and I see
Matta-Clark and de Maria as peers. But I deal with work that
has a certain social content—invisible labor, the demographic
in which I grew up. That’s how I see it, versus the aesthetic.
I’m also contending with the white cube, because there weren’t
a lot of artists of color allowed in that space. How do I enter into
it, how do I become a player? How do I deconstruct it and also be
a part of it? How am I implicated in it? At least with post-Modernism
one gets to pull from every source to develop one’s practice.
I can pull from Heizer, Smithson, my own subjectivity, and, at
the same time, Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone.”