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At the end of a narrow, dark, airless room in the District of Columbia Arts Center, a couple is having an endless lovers’ quarrel. The fight began some hot night three summers ago in Peru, and a sneaky neighbor videotaped it all; tonight, a small crowd crams inside an installation piece titled Latin Triangle to watch the drama unfold in a continuous loop on a tiny monitor.

The free-standing structure is one of the pieces in Jose Ruiz’s first solo show, “Lack of Light Will Get You Down,” on view until June 2 at the Adams Morgan gallery.

The 26-year-old artist uses a variety of media to playfully explore concepts of physical and mental space and orientation. Why Upgrade? re-creates an office workstation marooned on an island of indoor-outdoor carpet. The installation is flanked by a series of abstract paintings, including the large-scale Screensaver #5—Whereabouts Unknown; measuring more than 10 feet wide and about 5 feet, 7 inches high, it is as tall as Ruiz. Glowing, monitor-inspired shapes float on the surface over red vertical lines buried beneath layers of frothy blue swirls. Viewing it is like falling into an idle computer screen.

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“Verticality is overrated,” Ruiz explains in a whispery voice. “We have a tendency to think we need to build up to progress, architecturally and socially. But there are things going on in the periphery of the moment. I want to bring that underprivileged information into the foreground.”

And a Dark Wind Blows, a wall-sized projection, explores this idea, submerging the viewer in what seems to be a stormy sea but is soon revealed as carwash foam. “We had to go through so many times to film it that my antenna snapped off,” laughs Ruiz.

Born in Lima, Peru, to a diplomat family, Ruiz spent his early childhood in major cities all over the world before his family moved to Bethesda, when he was 9. “All the smells and the colors here were different than anything I had known,” he remembers. “My new school was all bright and blue”—a color that, in a dusky hue, permeates the DCAC show.

The artist had nearly completed a degree in international relations at the University of Maryland when he had a last-minute epiphany during a job interview; in May 2000, Ruiz—who earlier that year had co-founded Shaw gallery and artists’ collective Decatur Blue—finished his bachelor’s in fine arts.

In an attempt to balance gallery responsibilities with school, Ruiz is currently enrolled in a four-semester summer-session MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he met professor Stephanie Ellis, who curated “Lack of Light.”

Ruiz says that the close quarters that come with city living influenced this work, especially a winter spent indoors. “We think we know how the spaces we live in shape us, because they are so banal,” he says. “But there is a vertigo when you consider what exists in the background.” —Shauna Miller