Nicolas Ruston

Propensity Modelling: The Gates of Hell
Essay by Neal Brown


Nicolas Ruston is both an advertising insider and an
artist: a participant commentator who, in his artwork,
addresses advertising’s enormous presence in our lives,
from its derangements of value through to the glories
of its high inventiveness. He is a creative director of an
agency, and the clients he has served over the course
of his career have included those at the pinnacle of
capitalist consumerism, such as Jaguar, Sky, Diesel,
Barclays, Virgin group, Tesco and (somewhat spoiling
the pure capitalist trajectory) the BBC.

This experience allows Ruston his entitlement to the
pillaging of the formulas and devices of advertising
that is seen in his work, and which has given it a
characteristic style. Through his use of the materials
and forms of advertising and consumer shopping, he
addresses the ways and means by which socially directive
mythologies come about. Image, text, moving image,
and even supermarket shelves themselves are employed
by Ruston to make reference to the commercial,
ideological and political devices that business applies,
with its remorseless energy, to changing consumer
behaviour. His technique has been to drip and splash
paint onto his paintings, and to slice, carve and scratch
into them, or to use incongruous materials – silicone,
household gloss, duct tape – to which are added
subversive rearrangements of text. In earlier works
the effect has been that of a riotously punk destruction,
with intimations of graffiti and vandalism, but which
is actually a coherent whole, as a consequence of
Ruston’s highly informed graphic sensibility.

Ruston has said about his work that he wants to
‘illustrate the difference between making love and
pornography. I think that is a metaphor for the way
people relate to the mass media’.(1) Up until now his
work can be likened to someone ripping back a curtain
on a scene that pulsates with raw indecency – the
indecency of the venal calculations of a manipulative
and controlling media in its service of business, and
business profitability. Ruston has commanded the
vast turmoil of meanings that attach to this subject
be upended, spilling their moral and ethical complexities
in a brazen exposure of orgiastic, entangled writhings,
whose values he determines as variously humorous,
sad or debased.

Ruston’s more recent work, as seen here, reveals
a deepened development of these themes, in which
attention moves from the pornography part of his
metaphor, to something more subtle and borderline.
In these new works he seems interested in the
contradictions that ensue when the high intentionality
– the idealistic, pure love – that the image maker has
for the creation and communication of an image, whether
artist or advertiser, creates a genuine confusion between
what is socially useful and what is socially useless.
These paintings include images of trees whose natural
forms are presented by Ruston in expanded forms of
exhilaration and beauty, but whose calmly sinister titles
refer to the control-seeking of corporate power in such
areas as biomedical engineering, DNA copyrighting, or
statistical analysis of data sets for profitability. (2)

Ruston creates a mood of soiled, corrupted beauty, in
which technology becomes a psychopathology for which
the corrective – which is probably human empathy – is
conspicuous by its absence. It is a dystopia of science
horror – the elegant forms of Ruston’s paintings are a
lure. Basic Pleasure Model, 2011, takes its title from one
of the replicants in the film Blade Runner, whose theme
of empathy (or the normalisation of the lack of it) is
relevant here. Other works reference storyboards from
film noir movies, whose purpose – the formation of a
dark narrative attraction – is also relevant. In such ways
Ruston advances his address to the ethical.

Situated amongst these new paintings are sculptures by
Auguste Rodin; individual pieces from his monumental,
unfinished work The Gates of Hell (1879 and 1900).
Rodin’s work depicts a scene from The Inferno, the
first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Ruston’s
installation of Rodin’s works, (3) he has them covered
in white drapes, summoning ideas of manipulative
theatricality: the narrative control of the entrance
of hell, into which we are being led, and into which
Ruston himself (as a true media professional) enters
with us – as doomed as we are.

Neal Brown
London, 2011

(1) 11 September 2009
(2) Propensity modelling is the statistical analysis of
consumer behaviour, made so as to determine the likelihood
or not of consumers to undertake a given action.
(3) These are bronzes made from what was originally
a compilation of foundry plasters