Now Featuring Conrad Ruiz
Conrad Ruiz’s enthusiasm explodes, quite literally, across his giant canvases. Smashing pop culture, cute animals and tough guys together in chaotic, balletic scenes of climax, his paintings are a pressure cooker of masculine extremes. Conrad and I caught up about how his work has evolved over the years, and the intense themes he unpacks in his work.
MH: For the years I’ve known you, since 2008, you’ve worked on monumental scale paintings. Oftentimes you’re combing the format of historical paintings from the 17th/18th centuries with your own content. Figures in an active tableaux are front and center. How did you arrive at this form?
CR: From the day I started painting, I was originally inspired to make epic triumphant works from the artists that I was following. Inka Essenhigh, Barnaby Furnas, John Currin, and Kristin Baker were artists that were able to reference the history of great painting and make contributions of their own. My efforts to chase the idea of ‘triumph’ in painting led me to reference my favorite masters such as Caravaggio and Delacroix.
While growing up, I was interested in hanging out with homies, playing Mortal Kombat and listening to Tupac, butmy brother made it impossible to avoid his interests. So I would entertain long conversations about role playing games, X Men, and Dragon Ball Z. I became interested in drawing the comics that were everywhere in my room.
In grad school I combined my love for painting with a childhood and young adulthood filled with video games, Hentai and blockbuster movies. The front and center composition is something that comes as second nature at this point and that might be because I see it the most in my daily life. Billboard advertising and comic book covers use this principle as a tool to make captivating images. I’m really into the Deadpool movie ads that I see everywhere in LA.
MH: I really enjoy how you collapse a number of feelings into each other, enthusiasm and violence, for example, with the common point being a sense of the extreme. Can you talk about how you’re knitting together different feelings — oftentimes they’re aspects of masculinity — in your work?
CR: There is a level of honesty I try to bring into the work I make. Growing up as a Chicano in Southern California, frequently I’ve had to defend myself against aggressive idiots and even using bullying tactics myself to keep instigators at a distance. In movies, people see schoolyards having one big bully that terrorizes the community. In my experience, it’s more like a shark tank, where everyone is constantly messing with each other. At the time it wasn’t weird at all to settle disputes with friends by boxing it out at the park and then go drinking afterwards to bond some more.
I have a personality that enjoys physical contact. I hug a lot and I think I’m affectionate with my girlfriend. When I was younger, I enjoyed the physical act of fighting as well. I discovered punk music and that scene also opened a world for me; I could enjoy controlled moments of mayhem with minimal fear of being shot or stabbed, which only happened occasionally. The idea of fun and exhilaration is something I enjoyed connecting with outrageous experiences.
MH: The fact that your paintings are watercolors startles me every time I see your work. They’re such an accessible but fugitive material, and to see them of the scale of giant, tight paintings is always a trip. How did you come to decide that they were the right material for you?
CR: Although watercolor has its place in the contemporary scene, it has a history of being marginalized as the tool of Sunday painters. There’s the idea that hobbyist artists use it to make landscapes and flowers versus, the connotation oil painting as a medium for ‘genius’ white men. I am very motivated to bring a different relevance to watercolor by making large-scale, aggressive works.
There is something about the accessibility that attracted me to watercolor in the first place. It’s probably the only paint available in the kid’s aisle at Walmart or Ralph’s grocery stores. I would sketch with it and increase the size of the paintings. As I explored an approach to narrative painting with the medium, I was fascinated by the feedback about the works being dreamscapes from a demented kid.
After coming across Tim Gardner’s work (who was making small detailed watercolors of frat boys) I was excited to borrow that idea and run with it. The idea of using a delicate medium to communicate the intricacies and intimacy of male bonding was something that was very inspiring and continues to fuel my practice today.
MH: The Tough Lovers/Abscapes series is a departure for you in a couple ways — you’ve moved into monochrome, your compositions are tight and cropped, and you seem to be explicitly addressing bodies as a form of multilevel masculine expression. Can you talk about this series and how it came to include a sculpture in addition to paintings?
CR: The idea was brewing when I was going back and forth to Mexico City and working out using this new program called ‘P90x’ which was supposed to be the most extreme workout series possible. Later it was ‘Insanity’ but this was before that. One of the principles they keep repeating is the importance of strengthening your core. That core development is the foundation on which you develop your extremities. I started using that logic to focus on my art practice and develop the visual elements in my favorite paintings. What I ended up with was a series of wave paintings that I would like to think of as condensed male passion and my abscapes that were inspired by Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements and combining that with my memories of wanting to be a sexy thug in high school.
These works came together for my show last year called Knuckles and Bubbles at the Museum of Contemporary art Santa Barbara. For the show I presented my first sculpture called Knuckles. It was named after a friend of mine who I would tag along with as he beat people up. He was an enforcer in his gang along with Bubbles who was in the same gang also. I think the whole idea was funny to name things that are visually present in the show and reference someone like Bubbles, who worked with me at Papa John’s and sold cocaine on his pizza deliveries. Knuckles, the sculpture, is currently on view in second wave at the UCR Arts Block in Riverside, California.
The piece was made of whey protein powder mixed with resin, and during that time I was drinking a lot of whey protein milk shakes when I was working out. I wanted to bulk up so bad because I was always dissatisfied with my small frame. And all that stuff almost worked, but not really.
MH: Do you think you’re going to make any more sculptures? And do you have any more interesting new departures brewing?
CR: I’m excited about how the current sculptures came out, but I am also getting into the idea of 3D printing and using a robotic milling machine that carves into soft material. I would love to 3D scan an Exo-Squad figure and have the robot carve it from a giant block of antiperspirant deodorant. (Just like Michaelangelo’s David!)
I am also revisiting my Climax series that I started in the graduate program at California College of the Arts. I am pumped by a new area of extremism, you can see it in the news, and the mayhem that comes along with it. One of my most recent works, Rampage, depicts a horrid scene of a man in the act of decapitating someone, but using the visual language of unleashing arcade game Super Moves. In classic 2D fighting games these Super Moves can only be achieved by storing energy points earned through combat. These moves are crazy, chaotic, unpredictable and for me, visually pleasing. Much like the paintings in my first Climax series, which borrowed heavily from epic history paintings, Rampage is a reference to Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1614) and earlier, Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio (1599).
MH: Who are some artists you’re excited about now, and other things, like the Deadpool movie?
CR: Recently I’ve been really into Puppies Puppies Collective. Through appropriating mainstream characters they have found a cool new way to communicate serious subject matter through an outrageous body of work. I am also a fan of Allison Schulnik who just had a great show at Mark Moore Gallery in LA that I just saw today.
I’ve been watching a lot of Rick and Morty, which is one of the most well put together animated shows from the U.S. In the show, a grandfather and grandson travel through space, and alternate dimensions to run errands and escape repercussions for the misdeeds they have performed. But One Punch Man is my new favorite Anime, about a superhero cursed with punches that are just too powerful. He longs for a decent fight, but most of his battles end with his enemies exploding upon contact. The lead character is very intense, yet often he is busy using coupons and shopping for groceries.
This week I’m traveling to Mexico City for Material Art Fair to check out the work of Ryan Perez and painter Kara Joslyn who are Los Angeles based and will both be exhibiting work there. When I arrive, I hope to catch a performance by Korakrit Arunanondchai organized by Franklin Melendez at Lodos gallery. That’s a triple whammy for me, I can’t wait.