Lev Rukhin, Low Fidelity

Decal Universe - Essay by Peter Frank

The urban landscape is not defined simply by its architecture — or by its inhabitants. The interface between people and places yields a rich and varied field of marks and notations, affronts and negotiations that anyone entering a city must invariably navigate. In particular, the skin of a city, the surfaces of its myriad objects from buildings to boxes, pavements to planks, ripples with the myriad contacts it has with its inhabitants and its visitors. In a certain sense, we are all street artists, leaving our mark, no matter how faint, wherever we step.

What soi-disant street art — graffiti and its extensions — actually does is treat the exteriors (and many interiors) of urban centers overtly as sites of contact as well as sites of perception. In looking for (or perhaps just activating) an audience, the street artist articulates where and how that audience is to be found. The images and objects generated by street artists, no matter how expansive or complex, are signals not just of freedom, aesthetic and otherwise, but of connection — connection at once very different from and identical to that available on-line. A tag or scratch or sticker applied to a stop sign, construction panel, or side of a bus is not simply a shout-out to the world, it’s a little spark arcing between maker and beholder. It’s Instagram made solid.

In his series “Low Fidelity” Lev Rukhin acknowledges this intimate and yet widespread dynamic by documenting it and “growing” it into a format that allows it the classical reach of a normative display context (the walls of a public or private space devoted at least in part to high art). In doing so, Rukhin very much un-classicizes the artfulness of his street-art elements, subsuming them into much larger superstructures. By doing so, however, Rukhin does not rob the stickers and stamps and decals he finds of their integral voices, whether those voices are self-consciously artistic or straightforwardly commercial-graphic. A decal for a band, for an individual, or for merch has the same weight, the same presence in Rukhin’s visual structures. Every one of them is a molecule in the larger construct, but all are legible to varying extents in their own right.

Rukhin comes to this material as an outgrowth not of any involvement in the music scene — out of which so many of these stickers generate — but of his devotion to the urban environment per se. The cascades of decals that comprise his latest composite panels have been photographed irrespective of their symbolic or notative associations; rather, they have been recorded because of their appearance in cities — in specific cities, that is. An established photographer of contemporary Los Angeles, one who understands and sympathizes with, even celebrates, the grain and the grit of LA’s abject but colorful underside, Rukhin has here turned away from the human image and the human scale to record something at once physically more intimate and socially and geographically more vast than his subjects normally are. Small and inert enough to allow the kind of close inspection that another human, beast, or even house might not permit, the printed adhesive patches Rukhin records have been adhered by hand as a connection in time and place. Whenever that logo got stuck to that WALK sign, it’s still there many seasons later and you’re just now noticing it. Or Rukhin is, at least.

Indeed, each of the panels in the “Low Fidelity” series purports to portray a specific city on the basis of the many stickers Rukhin has found there. Each urban whole is the sum of so many parts. Each stew of stickers may seem indiscriminate, and as far as Rukhin is concerned, it is: again, he has shot all these decals without heed to content, consigning them only to the picture-composites pertinent to the city where they were found. Rukhin composes these bubbling cauldrons into sprawling compositions whose geographic identities are betrayed by their overarching forms — the red telephone booth denoting London, for instance — or by the repetition of a single motif, one not found in the stickers themselves (but similar in effect, as in the waves of brownstone images comprising the New York “picture”). Thus, if the sum of the parts is Rukhin’s fanatically compiled archive of street stickers, the whole is each city where those stickers were found.

In his biographical note, Lev Rukhin notes that he “captures the folklore of my community.” Rukhin’s community has expanded beyond Los Angeles — or, perhaps we ought to say “expanded back,” as he grew up not in LA but in various places around the world, a refugee from political oppression who had lost his artist father to the machinations of an implacable totalitarian regime. Coming to Los Angeles to attend college, Rukhin found this new home an endlessly fascinating universe. But it was a universe he could not limit himself to forever; the microcosm had to give way to the world itself. The photographic murals of “Low Fidelity” represent Rukhin’s step into a potentially limitless space. It is an urban space — or spaces, as no two cities are anywhere near identical. But all cities embrace and assault us the same way, and our haptic response to them is consistent. Rukhin’s blooms of stickers distill the urban experience down to a granular analysis — and then rebuild that experience a whole other way. That “other way,” however, is invariably true to the feel and sense of today’s cities. It is Rukhin’s way of finding cities’ heartbeats, and keeping the beat.

Los Angeles, April-May 2019