contemporary art, LAND

Ruben Ochoa, Sweat Equity and the Urban Landscape

The building where artist Ruben Ochoa works in East Los Angeles is next to a restaurant named Teresita’s. Before meeting up, I went there first on his suggestion, where I was greeted with a generous slice of pistachio cake and a cup of black coffee. An elderly man walked in selling leather wallets and, when I handed him some money for one, he gave me my purchase and a blessing, recited in Spanish. It was a locally owned place decked out in hot pink paint and Aztec calendars. Ruben had been a good neighbor; he conversed easily with the owner when he walked in to meet me. Besides that, he chatted with other locals, greeting a woman on the street whose husband had lent him a weed whacker the day before. I wondered what those around him thought of his work, of the twisted metal fence posts, concrete mounds, stacked palettes (which he’d exhibited in a show and had originally purchased from his uncle, who owns a palette business) and teetering cubes of aggregate that graced his ample backyard. When I visited in March, the unseasonably heavy rains had birthed a jungle, the weeds almost waist high, and the art that he stored outside and in the elements, hard to spot amongst the greenery. Ruben had spent time mowing everything before I got there, but evidence of the urban jungle was still visible. The greenery was an especially out of place, he explained, since most of the time the studio’s backyard was closer in appearance to a dirt plot. The precipitation proved that even dirt plots can bloom.


When we walked indoors, we spent a lot of time combing through Ruben’s oeuvre, or what he had on hand of projects recently exhibited as well as the wealth of files kept on his old Macbook. There was bound rebar (several held together with wire), which I first thought was painted white, until he told me the form was actually ceramic. Holding them proved this, their ceramic bodies making what can only be described as a ceramic sound when clasped together.  Somewhere in the corner were a series of sculptures in which galvanized posts appeared to grow out of a lump of dirt topped with grass. This description is mostly true, except the grass was actually astroturf, the perenially vibrant green stuff that makes desert suburbs look like uncanny oases. Ruben pointed out that in California, astroturf comes in varying shades of green and is often named after different neighborhoods. It is a true semiotic confusion, astroturf, a substitute for real lawns based, however, upon artificial stretches manicured to look like English glades. The name of one such sculpture was L.A. Riots in the Age of Minecraft (re)building block no. 001–006.


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.


There was a lenticular print of a project he had completed with funding from Creative Capital hanging on one wall. I saw a concrete barrier from the perspective of the the I-10 from one angle. From another, I saw that same barrier cut open to reveal landscape and it’s underbelly, layers of sediment eventually giving way to verdant tufts. It was a based on his Extracted Freeway Wall Intervention, from 2006, in which the artist covered sections of a retaining wall on I-10 with photographic paper. To those driving by, it would appear as if the landscape, and the layers of sediment beneath, was suddenly bursting through from behind its confines.  Extracted Freeway Wall Intervention was trompe l’oeil at it’s best.


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.


I spent a the better part of a Saturday afternoon in Ruben’s studio, a former pet food store. In the days after my visit, I began to pay quite a bit more attention to the city of Los Angeles. Not the city as a whole, a series of buildings, roads and people interacting together, but to chain link fences with galvanized poles, rebar poking out from worksites in progress, the concrete that carpets nearly everything your feet touch, and  industrial palettes. Each seemed to push forward from the visual din. I was more drawn to this industrial detritus or to those building materials normally ignored for the more finished aspects of the city, the destinations, and not the undeveloped or incomplete. My friend, whom I was visiting, was surprised when I stopped every couple of steps to take pictures of rebar after visiting LACMA. Yes, rebar. It was a chance for me to look differently at LA, and other cities for that matter. Rebar was no longer just a means to an end, but a thing unto itself. It was one component piece of a much larger whole. It was a chunk of the city.


Besides the very material aspects of Ruben’s sculpture, there is a subtext, labor. He talked to to me about his own working class roots; certain family members were involved in construction businesses. That familial history filtered into his work. At the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition Mi Tierra, the term that resonated most in his statement was “sweat equity,” the value of a particular property in labor. Ruben’s projects, at least some if not all, are about labor, labor we sometimes see, but often times don’t pay attention to. This mirrors the objects that he works with, construction materials that are overlooked for finished products. Of course, he was referring to immigrant labor (Mexican, or more broadly Central American), the kind that is pervasive in major cities, but often peripheral. In his sculpture, we are invited to look at material chunks of a city–rebar, concrete, palettes, galvanized steel– each remade into art. Their actual function is put aside, becoming signposts for another message. In other words, they direct those to consider the least-acknowledged aspects of every urban space, the people that contribute their sweat to a city’s constant revisioning.

If we’re paying attention, we might see other aspects of neglect, the people who make up a particular workforce, yes, but also parts of a city that see little to no improvement over time, those places where there is an obvious breakdown, or downright lack, in infrastructure. In fact, certain communities in California, mostly communities of color, have sued local governments for lapsing on infrastructure needs such as proper drainage systems and sidewalks. It’s typical, moreover, that poorer neighborhoods are less walkable and often cut up by highways. In New Orleans, for example, poorer communities are less likely to have “continuous sidewalks.” As other researchers have pointed out, income inequality is visible by the number of trees in a particular neighborhood. Often, poorer neighborhoods have less foliage. By the same token, cities that have seen more economic turmoil (think Detroit) have reverted, in some neighborhoods, to a “wilder state.”


Urban landscapes say a lot. “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.” A series of photographs, Clastic Rupture, depicting the roots of ficus trees cracking a sidewalk apart are one example. Ficus trees, like many other species, are not native to California, but come from Malaysia and India. Most of these trees were planted in the 1950s and 1960s, hailed at the time for their hardiness and canopy-like branches. Now, they are less celebrated than vilified, their muscular roots characterized as “invasive.” The term is revealing, expressing a sense of menace or threat, the notion that their root growth is unstoppable and in places where it doesn’t belong. Language that describes plants as if they had human qualities isn’t coincidental, nor is language that describes botanical forms in nativist terms. Certain historical descriptions of native and non-native, or alien species of plants, as garden historians have pointed, share a similar language with eugenics movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, “nativism” was a characteristic extended to plant life, but one could apply the same term to contemporary claims regarding who belongs and who doesn’t belong in the U.S. Now that we’re in the Trump era, claims to nativism are all the more poignant, especially when thinking beyond plant life. Plants, in this regard, are a rather interesting example of globalization and migration. Like people, other biological forms travel (whether on their own accord or at the hand of man) in some cases radically changing the landscapes they eventually call home. This movement of organic life has structured  the very ground of urban and rural settlements. And as Ruben has said in the past, ficus trees might also be a metaphor for the immigration of people, as well.


Sidewalks are ubiquitous, so much so that we take them for granted. But in those instances where roots break through the concrete, it is hard not to see them for what they are, structures that fall victim to entropy and nature. The result is something like a wayward ramp, a moment of failure when structural weaknesses suddenly come to define the structure. Disabled residents in LA even filed a lawsuit because sidewalks, or public pathways, were compromised and made impassable by the massive tentacle-like roots of the ficus. When Ruben spoke about the series, he remarked, unsurprisingly, that ficus tree root overgrowth had been a bigger problem in less affluent neighborhoods in L.A. Residents, he recalled, would get together and offer rasquache fixes, crafting ramps, or reverting to the old home remedy, duct tape, when the city failed to step up. Now, ficus trees seem to be a problem everywhere, indiscriminate in their path of urban breakdown.


Urban breakdown is one fact of life. So is urban revision. Here, Ruben offers a way to peer at our urban surroundings, and the ways they constantly morph, a bit more discerningly. While driving around my hometown of Santa Fe, I found myself looking at a construction project in which a portion of a sidewalk was cored out. I had no backstory; all I could see was that the surrounding sidewalk remained intact, while the area that had been extracted revealed the ground–dirt and rocks–beneath. Orange cones and yellow caution tape cordoned off the section, keeping walkers away from the work in progress. Crooked Under the Weight came to mind. Exhibited at SITE Santa Fe in 2009, the sculpture was composed of pieces of concrete, cut directly from the institution’s floor. The result was an intervention into the very ground of SITE Santa Fe, on one level, and an the opportunity to see the dirt beneath the art space, on another. Crooked pieces of rebar bore the weight of the concrete, which was raised up several feet high, giving the sense that the snaking metal forms might collapse under their burden. The burden, in this case, is real and metaphorical.

“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.

Metaphor or a kind of creative double entendre; those are two prime aspects that define Ruben’s body of work. While building materials always remain as they are, an important point that the artist stated to me in person, they nonetheless bear other meanings. Those meanings range: they can include the very real fact that crumbling infrastructure is often a marker of lower class neighborhoods, or the way that labor becomes invisible to the extent that we have been conditioned by our cultural and economic blinders. Capitalism plays its part, here. And so while concrete remains concrete, and palettes palettes, the materials themselves are vehicles for conveying the notion that certain strata that compose our urban existence, down to the sweat equity and economies defined by unabated demand, continue to remain out of sight.


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