A visitor who stepped into the main gallery at LAXART in the fall of 2006 might have been forgiven for thinking that the prominent Los Angeles exhibition space had been struck by an earthquake. A 15-foot slab of concrete leaned precariously against one wall, as if it had just crash-landed. Cascading over it was a small mountain of loose soil. This dramatic ruin, however, was not the result of seismic activity. It was an installation by L.A.-based artist Ruben Ochoa. On its surface, Once Extracted, as the piece was called, constituted a powerful gesture. The cool industrial grayness of the concrete was in stark contrast to the organic scent of the earth around it.
But it also contained an artful surprise—the work was totally hollow. What appeared to be a concrete slab was really a steel-and-plywood box dipped in concrete. And the mountain of soil was actually a thin layer of dirt on a burlap-and-chicken-wire frame. “You would walk into the gallery and you had this massive earth art—a very male, very self-assured cultural gesture,” recalls Susanne Vielmetter, the Los Angeles gallerist who has represented Ochoa for more than half a dozen years. “Then you’d walk underneath the piece and you’d see that it’s just a skin, a contraption.”
Because Ochoa lives in Los Angeles, and because Once Extracted is about conveying illusion, critics often compare the installation to a Hollywood set. But the artist says that this would be a misreading of his work, which, he explains, is playing with the raw materials—concrete, plywood, chain-link fence, and rebar—from which so much of Southern California is built. These are the very same materials that mark the region’s social and geographic divisions. “I like to look at civic engineering and see how functional/dysfunctional it is,” Ochoa says. Besides, he adds, “That piece still weighed two and a half tons. If it came down on you . . . well . . . it would just . . .” He pauses, and then swats his hand down as if squashing a bug.
Over the course of his short career—he is 39—Ochoa has consistently employed industrial materials to fantastic effect. From 2001 to 2005, he transformed an old tortilla van into an art gallery on wheels, complete with drywall and track lighting (a project featured in the 2004 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art). In 2007, he filled a room at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects with a three-dimensional grid of steel reinforcement bars. For the Whitney Biennial in 2008, he built an undulating mound of cement-covered palettes that bore a giant sail made out of chain link. And at SITE Santa Fe, in 2009, he cut neat rectangular slabs out of the gallery floor and mounted them onto spiderlike legs made from rebar. The effect was straight out of science fiction—as if the floor had come to life and was about to launch an attack.
The work brings buoyancy to materials that are heavy and ponderous, a line of inquiry Ochoa continues to explore. Last October, he unveiled an elaborate piece constructed out of galvanized fenceposts for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Then, in November, he staged his fourth solo exhibition at Vielmetter’s Culver City gallery, where he displayed a series of new paintings, as well as rubbly dirt-and-concrete towers that bent and leaned in gravity-defying ways. This June, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, he debuted a series of large-scale, monochromatic canvases embedded with bits of rubble.
Ochoa’s piece, dubbed Flock in Space, 2013, a tribute to Brancusi, stood in front of the Trinity River Audubon Center and consisted of roughly 100 steel fenceposts bent into ribbon-like shapes, echoing the trail of birds in flight. Strick says the symbolism couldn’t have been more poignant, since the site where the Audubon Center is located was once an industrial dump: “Ruben works with industrial materials and, in various ways, transforms them,” Strick says. “This was a site that did the same thing.”
Over the summer, the work inadvertently found its audience. Ochoa did a test installation in the backyard area behind his rickety Los Angeles studio. “One day I get here,” he chuckles, “and see a whole group of wild parrots just land on the sculpture.”
In contrast to his work, which is large and aggressive, Ochoa himself is extraordinarily courteous and soft-spoken, with a penchant for deadpan comebacks. (“Were you a troublemaker in high school?” I ask him. “Not on paper,” he replies.) Born and raised in Oceanside, California, a community that sits in the shadow of the Camp Pendleton military base, he is one of four children born to Mexican immigrants. His parents run a restaurant, and on weekends they deliver tortillas.
For his materials, he turned to the building blocks of construction. In fact, Ochoa regularly hires professional ironworkers and other industrial laborers (some of them members of his own family) to create installations. “They often tell me, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’” he remarks. “They’ve been trained for years to think about how those materials come together to form structural integrity. I want integrity, but I want something else, too. I want them to feel more organic.”
The work has a political aspect, too. Ochoa has long explored the ways in which municipal architecture can separate as much as unite. While studying at UC Irvine, he would photograph idyllic suburban streets and then paint a massive freeway wall into the middle of the print. Soon he began building actual walls of his own—small gray monoliths crafted out of concrete and foam—carting them around the suburbs, and photographing them in situ. “I really started to think about how the built environment impacts a community,” he says. “What would the residents of some nice neighborhood do if they woke up and there was a wall there?”
L.A.’s ubiquitous freeways are a particularly potent symbol for Ochoa, since they not only serve as barriers between races and classes, but also are often indiscriminately positioned right through working-class residential communities. In 2006, Ochoa created Fwy Wall Extraction, a piece in which he covered up a section of retaining wall with trompe l’oeil vinyl wallpaper that made it appear as if the wall had been smashed to reveal the scrubby landscape behind it. Ochoa placed the work on a stretch of the I-10 that runs through East L.A., a low-income Mexican neighborhood many Angelenos avoid.
“I saw this as a conceptual earthwork on paper,” says Ochoa of the project. “It had to be temporary. The city wouldn’t allow any murals to be installed. But,” he adds, “I didn’t want to do a mural. I saw this as an intervention. I wanted to have a conversation with the area, the community, and the space.” For drivers racing along the I-10 at high speeds, the effect was a portal into a place that often remains unseen. And it ignited a dialogue of sorts with the graffiti writers who regularly tagged it. Ochoa preserved these interventions when he removed the wallpaper and displayed it in several museum shows, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. (He also displayed it at Vielmetter’s gallery, where his flat works sell for between $5,000 and $20,000, and smaller installations start at $20,000.)
Nevertheless, even as his concepts speak to art-world audiences, Ochoa’s materials resonate beyond them. “Palettes, for example, are often made by Mexican and Mexican-American labor,” he explains. “The lower class, the construction class, the working class—the invisible class in a sense. They will know my materials.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 78 under the title “Ruben Ochoa’s Concrete Poetry.”