A conversation with Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya

A conversation with Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya

Amongst the sprawling one-story warehouses of downtown LA, Murmurs Gallery stands out with its polished glass-and-concrete exterior and beckoning matcha and café-latte sign. The recently reopened, community-oriented events space and gallery boasts an artist-curated shop, café, plant-filled courtyard, and monthly exhibitions. 

Passing through the storefront shop, café and courtyard, unidentifiable sounds beckon me towards the exhibition space, mixing with the passing cars and conversations into an industrial symphony. Just before the gallery, a small seating area, guestbook, press-releases and off-beat floral arrangement welcome me. Despite the frame of the white-cube gallery — track lighting, white walls and concrete floors — the current exhibition, titled Ex Situ Canas Latrans, presents unique sculptural constructions from fragments of discarded materials with an accompanying sound installation.

The first gallery holds a collection of Styrofoam architectures, a subtly-elevated landscape of soil mounds, and contorted, hanging assemblages of animal, metal and fabric. 

A goat’s foot has been welded into pieces of automobile metal, fabric, and Styrofoam. Drizzles of wax extend down to the earthen mounds below. These bodies, titled Vampitx, have been disfigured and remade, held together with zip ties, nail and glue. 

These stitched bodies dance to the vibrations of the industrial symphony. Pre-recorded sounds emanate from speakers in a tucked-away, freshly-painted, black second gallery room. Hanging on the walls of this room are semi-circular assemblages of goat, car, ziptie, silicone etc., similar to those in the light-filled, white gallery.

On the gallery floor, Styrofoam sculptures titled Tlahuelpuchi guide the visitor’s body movements and suggest the absence of what these assembled pieces once held: objects, food, drinks. Traces of these past lives erode the material surfaces. The varying sculptural forms — dirt mounds, stained styrofoam and reformed bodies — poke at material decay which challenges the white-cube myth of pristine lifelessness. These architectures and bodies point abstractly, gesturing more at the artistic intervention and materiality than any specific form. 

Stumbling out of the gallery, I had the pleasure of serendipitously meeting and speaking with Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya

India Halsted: How would you describe your process in relation to the materials you choose for the hanging sculptures?

Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya: The tentacles are made out of silicon. I use my clothes, and I smear them with silicone and different pigments and then sew them back together, and they form shapes. Then I sew the horns, the pelts and all the other material together by hand, so they form these tentacle shaped creatures.

The [sculpture] material is sourced from Juarez Mexico, New Mexico, El Paso Texas, NYC, and LA; and then the car parts are all sourced from the abundance of cars and stuff that I found on the street and highway in LA. I just stop by and get the trash parts. When there’s an accident, there’s a lot of car parts that get thrown out. I pick[ed] them up and have been using them for the work.

Detail of Tlahuelpuchi, 2021. Courtesy Murmurs LA.

IH: What drew you to Styrofoam?

RURM: I think Styrofoam is very sculptural because it’s like the negative part of what used to be, what it holds. So, it sort of grabs a lot of the [other] materials. I like Styrofoam because out in the desert, it tells you an aging process because it’s non-recyclable. It’s almost like you can see a kind of history through its dematerialization — the ways in which the sand, the wind, or even brushes take away from the pristineness of the whiteness of the Styrofoam. So, it’s kind of an ethnographic approach to seeing something that never is going to go away in the world. So, seeing that sort of come together if you stack them into these terrestrial but also celestial – sort of like a spaceship but also like an old pyramid temple structure. So, that’s basically the ways in which I see the work. 

But in more of a poetic value, I think of the Styrofoam as this thing that used to hold something together, like this installation is holding the sculpture together like a battery. The Styrofoam is holding together this body [of works] that is unbecoming and becoming together; the sculpture that is floating [and] is not full. The  Styrofoam is holding it together as a stabilizing structure, if that makes sense.

IH: Yes, I was also thinking about that absence of what had existed within the Styrofoam forms – the containers, the plates – and then how they came to be assembled together in your sculptures. I was also curious about the sound. It feels very industrial. And so I’m wondering where the sounds were recorded, how they were assembled, and how you think they engage with the sculptures?

RURM: Well, my friend [Wéyon], he’s an artist working in Australia, and he makes these kind of otherworldly, unhinged sounds and I asked him to be inspired by the work and make a sound piece that gave the vibe, or alluded to the kind of environment where the work would exist. 

So, when I make any kind of sculpture, I think of them as beings, or like creatures, so it’s important for me to create an environment where they can exist within the white space of a gallery. The installation, or even the sound piece, is trying to make an environment where the work can exist. I’m curious what you feel from the sound, or take from it, because I’m not sure what it’s trying to do. Do you feel something?

IH: I felt like the sound connected me to the history of the material and the ways it has been used, like the process of building a car or manufacturing Styrofoam, and then connecting that to the afterlives of those materials, the reforming of them into your pieces. So, it felt like a connection to your process of making – or the process of making the original material – and I think the work engages with this tension between formation and ruination. Something I also noticed is that there’s a lot of semicircular shapes in the sculptures, and I was curious if you were thinking of horse hooves.

RURM: When you were talking about shape, there’s always a recurring shape in the work, like a horse shoe. That shape [of] the arch is really interesting to me because the way I see it [is that] in biology, almost all creatures are made of that arch. If you think of the dog, it has the arch from the back, from the front, from the side: it’s always an arch. 

So even smaller things like mollusks, like when octopi are born, or even the smallest of life forms always have a circular form, or a half [circle] shape, crescent moon. So, that’s my fascination [with shape] and how these creatures are being made through their very simple structuring, almost at the essence of its shape. And if you see cars, they’re also shaped in the same way – front to back, front to side – the same recurring, arch motif. 

Vampiritxs (edition 01) 2021. Courtesy Murmurs LA.

IH: There’s such a sense of movement with that which connects to the sound. And when a breeze flows through the gallery, the sculptures move because they’re hanging. I found that to be really engaging, as if it brought life back to the material in recalling how the car or the goat moves.

RURM: I hang my pieces because it allows for the creatures to have movement, and I think about the ways in which fish are swimming in the ocean, [how] they’re floating or almost like flying in water. I find it really fascinating when you pull a whale out of the ocean, and it sort of flattens out, and [therefore] it loses its grace. That’s how my sculptures are if you take them out of their hanging-ness. They lose the grace of their shape. 

In the same way, if you think of a bull that has all this strength, or a jaguar or elephant that’s so massive and so powerful, and then the simple gesture of a bullet. And when you kill it, it loses all of its power very easily, and it seems weightless. And so, when you kill an animal, it loses all of the millions of years of adaptation [and] evolution in one stroke. That’s why I hang the pieces, so that they have a movement or a grace to them that allows them to exist in that space.

India Halsted (she/her/hers) is an LA-based critic and artist working in time-based media. India recently graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University where she studied architecture, art history and visual arts and was co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Art Criticism, the first undergraduate journal in print.

Installation view, Vampiritxs editions 01-05, 2021. Courtesy Murmurs LA.

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