Envisioning Earth's inevitable end in Esther Ruiz's neon sculptures

While browsing around Esther Ruiz's sculptures in "The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts," at Platform Gallery through August 31, I hear David Bowie's voice in 'Space Oddity' ringing in my ears, repeating lyrics of disappearance and alienation, of lingering in vast, empty space. Neon light from Ruiz's sculptures gleams around me in orange, pink, and pastel blue, and I am thrust into Ruiz's futuristic and psychedelic sci-fi world of miniatures and myths.

The exhibition's title comes from the psychologist Kurt Koffka on the Gestalt theory, which is a principle that human visual perception creates a new, holistic reality from a collection of seemingly unrelated elements, such as lines or shapes. In other words, based on given cues, the human mind has a natural tendency to fill up the space between bits of information to form a separate, comprehensible image as a whole, instead of merely recognizing things as they are. By applying our individual perceptions to Ruiz's universe, we can see multiple indefinable, non-universal realities emerging from the scene. In my version, it feels as if every organic being has become extinct, and I am a tourist from the long-gone past, traveling in a time machine to see the preordained end.

From the street, you can see 'Bifröst II' as it stands in the gallery's bay window. The name refers to a burning rainbow bridge leading to the domain of the gods in Norse mythology; here, two tall, teal wooden pillars are connected with a neon-lit tube arch, acting like a gate before a landscape full of Ruiz's colorful and glowing artifacts.

Once inside, three small works ('Case Settings,' 'Auxiliary,' and 'Findings') sit next to each other on a white wooden shelf. Each uses a colorful geode and plastic tubing and string, which emerge from the concrete cylinders with yellow, pink, and white strings threaded through transparent tubes above them like rainbows or rings of planets. The geodes in the center, whose insides are layered like the earth's strata, mimic fossils or relics on display—but the petite shapes and decorative colors make them feel more man-made.

On the opposite wall, a similar piece, 'Black Jelly Jam,'* sulks in the corner. Compared to the brighter trio across the room, this one is stark, with two thin, precisely-cut triangular pieces of glass emerging from a cement cylinder. They look like long-dead mountains, parched and lifeless, but still so small that you could hold this tiny landscape in your hand. 

Nearby, two slightly larger sculptures stand on cement cylinders, both using that arched tubing with neon light. In 'Second Sun,' an orange neon light runs through the dark blue glass tube, which appears both like a glow around the rising sun or a blood vessel, like macro and micro symbols of life. Slightly larger in size, a pale pink neon light from 'Blush Commune' blinks repeatedly—an organic, animate motion coming from an inorganic object. These pieces feel less like artifacts than some of the others, and more like minimalist explorations in the alchemy of neon, glass, and cement. 

While many of the pieces in Ruiz's show make us feel like observers or excavators, the wall-mounted series 'Well' incorporates us and reflects back on us. Taking up one whole side of a wall, this piece features four blue mirrors framed with pink and orange neon tubes in slightly different shades. Each mirror is shaped the same; they look like small ponds, wired-up brains charged with lit up neurons, half-chewed gum, cumulus clouds, or cotton candy. I am too short to see myself in the mirrors, but as I look at reflections of others' faces instead—blue, contorted, and dimmed—an eerie image of human brains preserved in formaldehyde appears in my mind.

All of these works seem to have appeared naturally, without any direct human intervention. But one piece, 'Bones,' might be the only one that hints at the last vestige of an organism—mankind or something grander. The gigantic ribcage-like sculpture consists of MDF* parts—they also resemble gripping fingers—that are linked with white, ghostly neon tubes. The repetition of glowing neon blows life into the remnants of something that appears to be lifeless. 

Despite my associations with the world's end and the inevitable demise of humankind, mostly everything in Ruiz's show is too cute and too pretty to be depressing. Like the afterimages of neon in your vision, the landscape of the exhibit is somewhat dreamy and hallucinatory, referencing the everlasting inorganic world, which has outlived and will outlive everything. 

And this is the "whole" organized universe that my perception derives out of the neon, geodes, glass, and cement—artificial and natural materials—that the artist has placed throughout the space. In fact, the premise of Gestalt theory exists only because of human "error"; the human mind infers a holistic image, which might lead to presumption, misinterpretation, or conjecture. As a result, the whole might be not only other than, but also alienated from, the sum of the parts, like the various fictional narratives we can collect from her works.

On view through Aug. 31. There will be an artist talk at Platform on August 30 at 1 p.m. For more information visit platformbaltimore.com

*An earlier version of this review listed the wrong title for 'Black Jelly Jam' and misidentified the material used in the piece 'Bones.' City Paper regrets the errors.

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