Ruben Ochoa: In a construction zone

Ruben Ochoa: In a construction zone
Outside his studio, Ruben Ochoa stands by a piece created for a solo show at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Ruben Ochoa's East L.A. studio, housed in a nursery that's been vacant for years next to a Mexican restaurant, is a rustic affair -- more of a shell than a building, really, with chicken wire covering several holes in one wall and a port-a-potty installed in the back.

"It has one working light," he says with a laugh, gesturing to several fluorescent bulbs overhead. "Two power outlets. I can power the light, but then when I power the machine, that light flickers."

The machine -- a squat, metal box with several spool-shaped rollers on top -- is a rebar bender, and the only piece of major technology visible, save the laptop that's open on one of the tables. Most of the floor space is taken up by a piece called "three the hard way" -- three arcing metal poles on which are suspended rough chunks of seemingly uprooted concrete -- that's destined for the collection of the Miami Art Museum. In the lot behind the studio looms an immense piece made for a solo show opening at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in March: 11 individual pallets suspended 10 to 16 feet off the ground on spindly, wavering rebar legs, like a throng of enormous, swaying spiders.

Ochoa, who has a soft-spoken, slightly bashful manner but a broad smile and a quick laugh, betrays a clear affection for the building as he and Cam La, his partner and a central member of his team, show me around. He's been here since September -- he lives in Palms -- and considers it a welcome improvement after years of working in borrowed garages and the backyards of friends and family members.

"It's helped a lot to actually have the work here and be able to sit with it and let it breathe," he says. "Before, when I didn't have a studio, I would make the work for the show and assemble it on-site at the space and be like, 'Oh, I could have pushed it more.' "

The modesty of the operation is surprising, given the large scale of his work and the hefty nature of his chosen materials, which include concrete, rebar, shipping pallets and chain-link fencing. It's also surprising given the success that the 35-year-old artist has achieved in recent years: representation by one of L.A.'s smartest galleries (Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects); a spot in the 2008 Whitney Biennial; solo shows in New York, Berlin, Vancouver and at Site Santa Fe last summer; a Guggenheim Fellowship; and acquisitions by several major museums.

At the same time, it's hard to imagine such work emerging from a studio too comfortably insulated from the street. One of L.A.'s most eloquent sculptors, Ochoa employs a grittily vernacular formal lexicon (walls, fences, concrete, the materials of road building, manufacturing and construction) -- although he instills it with elements of playfulness, elegance and grace rarely achieved by, say, the L.A. Department of Transportation. The work, like the studio, feels close to the city, not about urban life so much as of it, as if spontaneously generated from its very fabric.

At LAX ART in 2006, he installed what looked like a massive slab of concrete covered with a pile of dirt but which was revealed from behind to be a hollow stage set imitation, built around a frame of two-by-fours and chicken wire. The same year he installed a vinyl mural on a retaining wall of the 10 Freeway that created the illusion that a strip of that wall had been removed. His Whitney piece was a beautifully nimble concoction of pallets, concrete and chain link, suggesting the gleeful liberation of a construction yard.

Ochoa was born and raised in Oceanside, the son of Mexican immigrants, and it becomes clear as he speaks of his background that it informs nearly every aspect of his work.

His mother ran a tortilla delivery route and later opened a restaurant, Carlito's Chicken, that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. (Ochoa worked for both.) His father worked in construction, laying concrete. Three of his uncles have had pallet yards, and several of his cousins install rebar. Earlier projects -- such as the conversion of his family's delivery van into a mobile art gallery, where he mounted 20 exhibitions featuring 75 artists shows between 2001 and 2004 -- reflected aspects of the restaurant experience: an interest in merchant operations and the development of informal economies.

The family business

His more recent sculpture clearly shifts toward the construction experience, encompassing the materials, skills and, in many cases, the actual labor of his uncles, from whom he buys his pallets, and his cousins Luis and David Gonzalez, who have become central members of his production team (along with Carlos and Baltazar Ibarra, who are brothers but not related to Ochoa).

Ochoa went to Otis College of Art and Design at the urging of a high school art teacher and from there to UC Irvine for an MFA. When he speaks of his work, one senses the sharp, analytical vocabulary of art school layered over the comfortable vocabulary of his upbringing. What's striking is how actively -- and comprehensively -- he's gone about weaving the two in the work itself: the formal and conceptual logic of contemporary art with the materials and processes of a small business operation.

"I've enjoyed drawing and making art since I was a kid," he says, "but I didn't know what it meant to be an artist, what it entailed, or how one sustains himself. My family didn't either, but as long as I wasn't getting into any trouble they were good. I think to get them to understand, I started incorporating them into my practice and into the work, from undergrad to now. . . . It's a push-pull relationship. Same with friends. It becomes like a community."

In demonstrating how the rebar bender works, he shows me the two or three standard angles it is typically used to create, for industrial purposes, then the wavering line he used in the sculpture outside, created by moving the bar around as it goes through the rollers -- a process he describes as drawing. It's easy to see how his cousins would be intrigued.

"I think it entices them," he says. "They're interested in it. It gives them a chance to explore different avenues in their material. They never thought they'd be bending rebar like this or going to New York to help me install at the Whitney."

Meanwhile, Ochoa -- who began art school as an illustration major, with no construction or engineering training himself -- is learning from them and by trial and error how to build things. "I tell people I went to art school to be a construction worker," he says with a laugh.