Sprinting toward Babylon

Pub date December 9, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART I remember the first time I heard about Conrad Ruiz. I was standing by the fire on the patio of the Eagle, a spot that for me is a site of great tidings. A pair of talented San Francisco artists told me with enthusiasm about this young painter whose large-scale works depicted things like a man riding the nose of a killer whale as it burst forth from a pool, or a coach getting a golden shower of Gatorade from his triumphant team. According to their accounts, Ruiz magnified and entwined the absurdity and ecstasy of his subject matter. I had some cathartic laughs just imagining his paintings.

Detail from Overload. Challenger explosion not pictured.

When I first “saw” Ruiz’s art, online, it exceeded my expectations. In particular, I was blown away by Overload [2009], which among other things deserves consideration as the best piece of “Barack Obama art” to date. Panoramic and vibrant even when shrunk 25 times in size, Ruiz’s watercolor works on paper and canvas once again incited a convulsive reaction. I laughed my ass off upon seeing works such as New Fall Lineup [2009] for the first time. But the longer I looked, the more caught up in wonder I became about their myriad tiny details and teeming — at times disturbing subtextual currents.

What goes on in Ruiz’s imagination? On the eve of his first solo show, at San Francisco’s Silverman Gallery, I caught up with him as he navigated the social conflagration of Art Basel Miami, the megafair where at least one magazine tipped him as the leader of a “new generation of art stars.” Whatever one makes of that claim, Ruiz — who is also plotting some collective artistic efforts with friends — is the splashiest crest of an exciting new wave of young California painters.

SFBG How are you doing?
Conrad Ruiz I’m alright. I’m just sitting on South Beach. I wanted to find a place to gather my thoughts, and I’m watching this guy tan himself. I can’t believe he’s doing that. He’s got these great stomach muscles. [Curator and Berkeley Art Museum director] Larry Rinder and I were talking about doing sit-ups before we came here, but we both just got busy — we never did it.

Miami’s fun. I kind of wish I could take my shirt off everywhere, but I feel a little bit squishy.

SFBG It seems like your art would look good in Miami.
CR The colors are finding a home here. There are a lot of bright red and yellow bikinis around. This couple nearby are either arguing or also tanning themselves. They just sit and look at the sun, kinda like lizards.

SFBG What do you think of the Tiger Woods news frenzy right now? I wondered about your take on him. In a way, I thought he might not fit along with some of the athletic figures you depict, because golf isn’t so much about dynamism.
CR But you always hear comedians say, “Just leave it to a black American to dominate another sport.” Chris Rock essentially says, “Wait till we get on ice skates, man, we’re going to take over hockey.”

Tiger Woods has been developed into this brand, aligned with Nike. It’s a very intelligent campaign. It’s not Obama, but he’s been this person who can do no wrong. That’s the personality that has developed through whoever is handling his marketing. It’s more than his being an excellent golfer, he’s also been displayed as this great human. We don’t know that much about him, and then something like [the car accident and ensuing scandal] happens. It’s all we get, and it’s kind of sketchy, and it happened to fall on this awesome Thanksgiving weekend. I thought, “All must be right in the world if the only thing we have to talk about is Tiger Woods getting hit with a golf club by his wife.” If that’s what actually happened.

SFBG People are already Photoshopping and digitally animating visions of that.
CR That’s my job — to look up all that stuff.


SFBG Does 1970s cinema have any place in your mind’s eye? The Jaws [1975] shark in your painting Rough Riders [2008] and the disaster film or Towering Inferno-like [1974] quality of works like New Fall Lineup made me wonder. I could see that I might be wrong about the latter, since a flaming, exploding skyscraper has other obvious connotations.
CR My work really started with that time period and in painting advertising from that era. The colors were a lot more primary. When I was painting those advertisements, the work was more sarcastic. That beginning body of work was about developing this snarky character that evolved into what I’m making now.

It is about going back and catching some of the ridiculousness of what was so popular at one time. When you watch a disaster film now, you know the history of those celebrities. It’s hard for me to relate to that period of time, but it’s easy for me to relate to early 1990s movies like the Naked Gun franchise — O.J. Simpson was in those — and the Terminator flicks. Those are ridiculous and fun. I like them, and of course [lowers voice], that’s my Governor.

Everyone says “I hate that guy,” but even though I think [Schwarzenegger]’s doing a terrible job, I don’t want my politicians to be these people I don’t know — I’d rather have them be these celebrities I hate. If I’m going to hate who’s in office, I’d rather have it be Sylvester Stallone or somebody.

SFBG When you make work that has a contemporary element, there’s always a danger of it becoming instantly dated. But I think some of your work is both timely and ahead of its time. Overload, for example, just becomes more and more evocative.

The NASA element of the piece, with the Challenger exploding, is taking on new facets as Obama is increasingly identified with the military and space program. I saw a show at Altman Siegel Gallery by Matt Keegan earlier this year that utilized a New York Times front page photo of Obama boarding Air Force One for the first time. That’s a more direct example of what I’m talking about. Six months ago, that image had a different connotation.
CR I was really hoping Obama would get elected, because I started Overload before the election.

SFBG I have to ask about the Challenger’s presence in Overload. I was talking with the artist Colter Jacobsen recently about the fact that I’d like to put together a show of Challenger-related art. Within the art world, there are at least a dozen or so people who have incorporated the Challenger one way or another into work. That’s not even counting how it has manifested as band and album names and jokes in popular culture.
CR For me, it would be great to ask the artist about the original idea behind making a Challenger painting. Everyone has a different a point of view about what’s going on. I always feel like I’m casting with my paintings. There are these scenarios that have never happened, and since I get to decide what’s happening, I also decide who is the star —whether it’s someone from a B movie, an unsung celebrity, a friend who I’m giving a big break, or someone from a blockbuster, like Eddie Murphy and David Alan Grier.


Overload is a blockbuster sort of painting. I cast that [Challenger] explosion because I thought it was a very unique, amazing explosion. Once I began painting it, people began talking about its relevance, because it says something different when Obama is flying towards it, possibly causing it or stopping it.

To be very honest, I didn’t initially know it was the Challenger exploding. My Mom told me. She’s a teacher, so to her it was a terrible thing, and she asked me to really consider what I was doing. I told her, “That’s perfect.” Because to me the painting is about Obama coming to the rescue and shitting these energy projections — either he’s going to stop the war, or he causing some trouble of his own.

A few paintings later [in New Fall Lineup] I painted the Twin Towers exploding for a similar reason. I was casting this unique explosion and trying to create a different scenario with it.

SFBG I don’t often self-identify in generational terms, but when I was talking about the Challenger explosion with Colter [Jacobsen], he was saying that he had referred to it while teaching a class, and that it wasn’t even a memory for many students. Whereas for he and I, there was the teacher element, and also the fact that everyone was watching the Challenger at school that day. So as a disastrous event, it was similar to 9/11 in that the day just stopped.
CR The Challenger explosion has a lot to do with failed promise, doesn’t it? There was tremendous hope about what was about to happen, and it all fell apart in one second.

There’s an element of comedy that I’ve kind of borrowed from Richard Pryor. As I watch his stuff, it’s more like performance art. What he talked about wasn’t funny at all, it was actually horrible. He was an interesting character in that he talked about things that were definitely not right, but did so in a way that everyone would be laughing. Comedy is a way of passing serious information without being worried about the consequences. That makes it kind of a new territory. Dave Chappelle was able to say some unique and terrible things in this fun format.

SFBG It’s interesting that you bring up Chappelle, because after he hit his sort of Challenger moment on the pop culture stage and went away, Block Party [a.k.a. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, 2006] came out.
CR That’s a beautiful movie.

SFBG It was released during the final stretch of all the jockeying for Academy Awards in Hollywood. All these talking heads were going on about which movies were important, and I remember thinking that Block Party was more important or vital and connected to the world than any of them.
CR/strong> His stuff is always about pointing out differences, and bringing together ideas of social class hierarchy. In a roundabout way, that’s what he did [in em>Block Party]. He brought together a lot of high-end artists and gave a free show. It was about giving to the people or the neighborhood. The idea of a barbecue, a barbecue block party, also has an ethnic connotation to it.

SFBG There is a lot of athletic imagery in your art, and I don’t want to reduce it to masculinity or sexuality, but I do want to ask about being drawn to those kinds of visuals, or wanting to render them.

Veronica De Jesus does some sports-oriented work that’s quite different from yours, but also has a terrific sense of humor. Sports are quite iconic — moments like an Olympic runner tumbling or Zidane’s headbutt become part of the collective consciousness. But beyond that, there’s an ecstatic, colorful, lively quality to your sports imagery.
CR Sports have always been a part of my life. My mom and dad were very athletic at one time, and they encouraged my brother and me to take part in sports. The alternative was for us to be on our own, and they knew we had a lot of Latino friends, so of course I was just going to get into trouble. So I was enrolled in soccer and taekwando. I was a sprinter in high school, and I was on the football team.

[The paintings] are a culmination of all the things you’re talking about. The outfits these athletes wear are designed to be eye-catching, with these primary colors. The Denver Broncos have that awesome dark blue with orange …

SFBG I love that combo. I just put together a sports cinema program with a film curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and when I’d introduce a movie from the 1970s, I’d always mention the athletic fashions.
CR Everything is designed to be the most freaking amazing thing possible, because these people are performing acts that no one else can do — they’re leaping through the air catching a ball thrown from very far away while wearing purple and yellow. The performance and exertion is incredible, and at the same time, what can make it even greater is being in a stadium where everyone is screaming their lungs out at the same time. Whether it’s an epic win or colossal failure, it’s still that climax. The climax doesn’t mean that it’s good — it’s a peak of performance.

When I’d meet with advisors at CCA [California College of the Arts], we’d really break it down, and they could easily talk me out of making my work. When you get down to it, what I’m doing is a little ineffective, and what would be more effective, to really get my idea across, would be to just play soccer with a group. I’d be performing, I’d be creating these intimate male relationships. I could actually be slapping some guy’s butt instead of painting around it. Joining a soccer team would be more efficient.

SFBG Maybe you and Luke [Butler, a fellow Silverman Gallery artist whose work engages with masculinity] should join a soccer team.
CR [Laughs] Yeah.

SFBG There is some commonality between your work, and also some major differences.
CR I think it’s because I’m the boy and Luke is the dashing man. I’m looking to be a man and trying to figure out what a man is, while Luke is a dashing man looking sideways.

Fri/11 through Jan. 30, 2010
Silverman Gallery
804 Sutter, SF
(415) 255-9508