“In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista.” –Barry Hannah
“When the links of the signifying chains snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” That’s Fredric Jameson, outlining what he calls subjective schizophrenia, one of them postmodern maladies that we keep hearing about. His diagnosis also fits the Down and Out in Detroit and LA work of Sterling Ruby. In his rubble, one finds chunks of the New York School’s cloudwhipped façade, discolored by the gang tags of East LA. As tangled ends of the cultural continuum, they constantly try to snuff the other out. Moreover, as once separate levels of culture, quarantined from the other, their collapse reveals not so much a negation of cultural difference, but of space.
Viewed this way, it makes sense that the paintings are preoccupied with atmospheric perpective. Created with spray paint on canvas, the images arise and retreat into a lo-gloss haze of pigment–cue the schizophrenic dispersion of subject. The color scheme recalls a heat-sensitive camera, or Predator’s vision. The dot, a puncture wound and a structuring element, lands on the cultural register somewhere between Ben-Day and an arterial spurt. And then there is the line: vertical and horizontal, repeated. This horizon underscores the work.
A horizon provides structure, be that geospatial, or narrative (John Wayne riding off into the sunset at the end of Red River). Speaking to the border between ex- and internality, it is the easiest way to locate oneself. Sugimoto, when attempting to photograph the primitive moment of naming, photographed the line between sky and sea.
Ruby comments on the distance between the subject and the landscape in his 2010-2011 essay, American Perspectives: “Our generation and those that come after are going to have to redefine their relationship to ‘the outsider.’ This is not because we will reconsider our relationship to those who we perceive to be different, oppositional, or marginal, but because we will be lamenting the loss of our belief in ‘the inside.’” Being outside history is a condition of what Karl Jaspers defined as an Axial Age, or the brief period between social epochs where thought flourishes. It is obvious that America has come to a turning point, but many, the artist included, are not optimistic about time to come.
Sterling Ruby, SP171, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.
But the thing about the horizon is there’s just one. What is one to make of Ruby’s paintings, where the line jitters top to bottom? One can begin with parallax. Freshman year geometry example: Look at something twenty feet away. Close your right eye. Open it, then close your left eye. The object will oscillate. This phenomenon, which becomes more pronounced on the astronomical scale, is an easy allegory for the multiplicity of self. Take this excerpt from Joyce:
“What’s parallax?…Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is…I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I?” (Ulysses, Episode 8, Lines 578-608)
So while the illusory movement of a distant (solitary) object testifies to a plurality of the subject, these paintings, with their multiple horizons vibrating in tandem, almost completely dislocate the viewer. This complication of perspective reveals much larger breakdowns. The failure is not visual, but ideological. With the single horizon, we are simultaneously inside and outside of a space that is once shifting and contained. A line across a composition provides this ontological framework. (A comparison: the meditative internal space on view at the Rothko Chapel). By multiplying the horizon, the paintings seem to place us outside the outside-removed from the entire network.
Sterling Ruby, SP170, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.
In case you were wondering, the distance to the horizon can be identified with the following formula: distance(km)=3.856√height (from sea level). For a person of average height standing on the beach, the horizon is 5km (3.1 miles) away. However, it’s rarely the numbers that matter. My favorite description of the horizon comes from Tennyson’s Ulysses:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move. (Lines 19-21)
The horizon is not just the dividing line between firmament and terra firma. It is the limit, albeit one forever retreating, of human endeavor. What was once a Sublime representation of human potential is now shattered. Think of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Think of the thumbnail crest of a rising moon. Etymologically, the sublime comes from the Latin sublimis, which is a combination of sub (up to) and limis (a boundary, limit, or threshold.) Push it to the limit. With Sterling Ruby’s new paintings, this limit ceases to become a spatial term, but another bit of cultural wreckage that one can pick through if they’d like.