Non-Site, Non-Report: Joey Enríquez’s ruined on a riverbank

By K. Lorraine Graham

The site-specific installation ruined on a riverbank (2022), Joey Enríquez’s solo exhibition which ran last spring at Hamiltonian Artists, used found bricks, construction detritus, plaster brick casts, various types of earth, and historical real estate development maps to evoke the layered and fragmented histories of construction, labor, and place-making, in the District.

Installation view of ruined on a riverbank, Hamiltonian Artists, April 2–May 7, 2022. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

I became interested in Enríquez’s work for self-centered reasons. Enríquez is a Southern California transplant who moved from graphic design to art when they came to Washington, DC. I was a DC transplant to Southern California for nearly a decade, where I moved from being a poet to being an interdisciplinary, language-based artist. For the past few years, I have been working on a sprawling project about the unreliability of family stories, and the complex relationships among narrative, memory, time, and place. I see Enriquez engaging with some of these same concerns, albeit in very different ways. We’re drastically different people, from different generations, genders, cultural backgrounds, etc., but I can’t completely discount our inverse regional affinity. When I moved to California, the poet Kevin Killian told me that California would make me obsessed with conceptual, place-based work about memory. He was right, and he would have loved Enríquez’s work and its obsession with how history and memory are (and are not) marked in landscape; the subtle references to pop culture; the persistent, queer orientation towards what is just askew from expected trajectories.

While his exhibition was not specifically about the pandemic, the pandemic was more than a backdrop. Gentrification, displacement, and access are perennial concerns in DC, as they are in much of the United States, and the pandemic made it more difficult (or at least unethical) for many of us to ignore housing inequity. One of Enríquez’s sculptures gentrification gray (2022) speaks directly to the aesthetics of gentrification. Assembled from found bricks, some of which have been painted gray, the sculpture and its title directly evoke the preferred tungsten color of recently flipped real estate.

gentrification gray, 2022, found brick, concrete, and latex paint, dimensions variable. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

I don’t know where this color trend started, but in Washington, DC; the Bay Area; and perhaps elsewhere, natural brick and brightly painted homes are typically painted gray after being redeveloped and sold. Enríquez leaves ample space in his work for viewers to bring their own context, but titles like “gentrification gray” give clear direction.

Evocative titles are one of several ways Enríquez uses precise language to be both subtle and direct. There was no explanatory wall text in the show, so a viewer could spend significant time with any one of the pieces before knowing the title. For a viewer not already thinking about the history of labor, building, and real estate in DC, the title “gentrification gray” completely recontextualizes the piece. This method of separating the titles from the pieces creates distinct pre- and post-title experiences.

At the opening, I spent a long time with unrepresented, but present (2022), an assembled sculpture of found bricks and a bent DC license plate. As a title, “unrepresented, but present” evokes the District’s license plate slogan, “taxation without representation,” which is an ironic take on DC’s lack of political representation. The DC Delegate to the House of Representatives can draft legislation but not vote. The District is quite literally unrepresented but present in the Senate. The title also conjures up a host of issues around political representation, cultural visibility, and those who are present but excluded from dominant narratives. It’s a title that nudges viewers to think about the contemporary politics of exclusion both in DC and elsewhere.

In conjunction with the titles, the digital illustrations act as an alternative to wall text—each one is paired with a sculpture. unrepresented but present was paired with potomac river map, 1942 (2022). I see this pairing as a clear invitation to look for connections between the pieces. This digital illustration includes a map of the Potomac River shoreline covered with numbers and dotted lines that might be topographical indicators. The words “restricted” and “area” are visible but have been crossed out. In between these two words someone has added “discontinued” in a slightly smaller font. In the lower left corner of each digital illustration, Enríquez has added a kind of prose-poem in addition to the names of both the illustration and accompanying piece.

“Sometimes, places become discontinued,” writes Enríquez in potomac river map, 1942. I had not sensed the bureaucratic violence of the word “discontinued” on the map until reading this first sentence of the prose poem. It’s unnerving to think of a place being “discontinued,” but this happens regularly, especially in the frenzy of real estate development. Places and buildings are subject to time, weather, gravity, bureaucracy, and capitalism. They are precarious.

Despite being made of solid materials, the sculptures themselves look vulnerable. At the opening, I asked Enríquez what was holding the sculptures together. “Gravity,” they said. “And the materials themselves.”

unrepresented but present is a precarious assemblage: a DC license plate bent around a four-brick wide foundation holds about sixteen layers of materials. The first eight or nine layers, depending on how you count them (I think of the license plate as a layer), form a kind of pedestal by arranging each layer of bricks in opposing directions. If you’re looking at the side of the sculpture with the longest part of the license plate visible, the first two layers of bricks are stacked lengthwise. But there is no clear Jenga- or Lego-like pattern of bricks stacked in alternating directions to increase stability. I wonder about the process of assembling these.

unrepresented, but present (detail), 2022, found brick, metal, and license plate, dimensions variable. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

ruined on a riverbank shares some of the same methods and concerns as Enríquez’s earlier work, including if you can’t find your own, store bought is fine (2020), a sculpture of adobe brick, wood, sand, clay, and newspaper, modeled after their great, great grandparents’ home in Garfield, New Mexico. I have only seen the sculpture virtually, but even virtually, there is an intense dynamism between the title and the object. It was only by reading the full text of Enríquez’s MFA thesis that I understood how they had made adobe bricks and created the piece to look like their ancestors’ ruined home. The tile evokes a combination of—stay with me—Ina Garten and jokes about depression. Garten, gay icon and host of the Food Network program Barefoot Contessa, frequently assures her viewers that “store bought is fine” while explaining a recipe. It’s her signature catchphrase. Sometime in 2020, I started seeing the phrase “if you can’t make your own serotonin, store bought is fine” on T-shirts and magnets. There is definitely something poignant and campy about a painstakingly hand-made replica of an ancestral ruin titled after a gay icon’s catchphrase suggesting that not everything need be relentlessly artisanal.

Knowing Enríquez’s past work, especially if you can’t find your own, store bought is fine, primed me to read ruined on a riverbank as a queer commentary, “queer commentary” in the sense that Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner describe it as being “animated by a sense of belonging to a discourse world that only partially exists yet.” My notes from the opening make it clear that I was anxious to contextualize the work—but this work has no lineage that can be diagrammed in neat tree branches. Whenever I am obsessively driven to categorize something, it is usually because my own learned tendency to straighten things out is at play. While not everyone will have this experience of Enríquez’s work, the lack of wall text and separation of title and object leave viewers to bring their own context to the work first and then have it radically reframed through language. I enjoyed this direct but gentle disorientation.

ruined on a riverbank put me on edge. An arrangement of bricks with no mortar holding them in place is volatile and unnerving. As metaphor, brick typically shows up as something uniform, stable, and foundational. It’s good to be the pig living in the brick house. It’s bad to be just another anonymous brick in the wall. Either way, those brick walls are solid. But the bricks in ruined on a riverbank aren’t solid. They’re unstable.

gentrification gray, 2022, found brick, concrete, and latex paint, dimensions variable. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

For those of us with the privilege of stability, especially stable housing, the pandemic shifted our bodies and attention toward new spaces and practices. Most of us picked up or at least tried out new domestic and outdoor habits. Enríquez intensified their running practice during the pandemic, collecting most of the materials in ruined on a riverbank during long runs along the Potomac River. On these runs, they began noticing, arranging, and collecting bricks and dirt.

Enríquez’s combined running and artistic practice had me thinking about Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2006). In this book, Ahmed thinks through questions of orientation and desire by considering orientation as a matter of how we inhabit space and find our bearings. “To be oriented is also to be oriented toward certain objects, those that help us find our way,” Ahmed writes. ruined on a riverbank gently thwarts the normative rules of viewing art. The sculptures, paintings, and digital illustrations “gather quite differently, creating different grounds.” ruined on a riverbank shows us that objects and orientation are working on us at all times.

little falls branch (spotted), 2021, gesso, brick dust, high flow acrylic, canvas, and found bricks, 64 x 36 x 8 inches. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

It takes mental and physical effort to notice or do anything other than what cultural norms direct. When I say that ruined on a riverbank is a kind of queer commentary on labor, place, and displacement, this is what I mean. It is easier to stay on the path, to go only where you ought to go and see only what you ought to see. I’m not being figurative, or at least not only figurative. It is easier to run along a trail than pick a path through the woods. It’s hard enough to see roots and rocks on the path, but it requires decisive attention-directing to look to the side and notice bricks or the color and texture of the soil. And of course it takes a lot of effort to gather up heavy materials like bricks and clay soil and bring them back to the studio.

In seeing, gathering, and re-creating these materials as site-specific installations, Enríquez creates a new ground on which to gather, one that leaves us to ponder the intertwined histories of material, place, and labor while simultaneously orienting us toward questions of gentrification through pointed use of language. What does it mean for a structure to be a ruin? For something to be ruined? How do we arrive at the mud or brick or ruin or sculpture in the first place?

As I write this, I realize that the sculptures especially remind me of cairns, the megalithic rock structures used as path markers, monuments, and memorials. The works in ruined on a riverbank speak to a direct connection between what was, what is, and what we wish to make. A desire path is worn by the pressure of passing feet, declaring that there is another way of doing things. ruined on a riverbank is a reminder that we can choose to engage with time and space in unexpected ways.

K. Lorraine Graham is an artist and poet.

Past Exhibition

ruined on a riverbank

April 2–May 7, 2022

Joey Enríquez’s site-specific installation comprising sculptural brick arrangements, raw-earth paintings, and topographical histories of Washington, DC pieces together contemporary realities.…