Virginia Billeaud Anderson
When Ricardo Ruiz paints a javelina, he is pictorially describing a place. South Texas ranches along the Mexican border are overrun with javelinas. On Saturday afternoon I previewed Ruiz’s Love Songs for the Palomia at Redbud Gallery, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints which can be seen through February 27. Redbud Gallery describes the Corpus Christie artist as one who “uses imagery culled from religion, folklore and the Mexican-American cultural experience in South Texas,” favorite motifs being devils, angels, El Cucuy, martyred frogs, family members and well-dressed grackles in fez hats.
I contacted the artist to ask a few questions, and his mention of music brought memories of trips into the barrio where the beer bottles were shoved into ice, huevos cost nothing, and I would give the proprietor money to select his favorite ranchera music with unforgettable strings, trumpets and yearning in the voices.
Ricardo Ruiz, El Mero Chingnon, 2012, Oil on Panel, 10” x 10”
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: Your artistic relationship with the frog dates back many years. As the story goes on childhood trips to Mexico with your family you coveted a mariachi frog figurine in the market. Years later you purchased a small frog playing the accordion, and upon close inspection determined it wasn’t a toy but an actual taxidermied toad, so in the mid-eighties you began to celebrate the martyred frog in your art. Is there a similar personal connection to the black bird or grackle which is also an important iconographic element?
Ricardo Ruiz: The grackles have been a constant presence here in South Texas, they follow me around as I cut the grass and they eat the bugs I stir up with the mower. It occurred to me a few years ago that I rarely see a dead grackle. This led to the theory that the grackles that were around in my childhood are the same grackles around today. That being the case, I’m sure they've had time to build some sort of civilization, which would include creation of the type of service organizations we see in every city.
VBA: It required a closer look at the oil painting Vicente (2010) to realize the frog does not reference Vicente Fox. Its flamboyant gestures with legs and arms wide apart and the way the figure takes up practically the entire canvas initially led me to assume you were talking about some El Jefe big shot. Its costume is theatrical.
RR: That frog in Vicente is dedicated to my father's memory. Before he died, he loved to watch the Spanish programming on TV and would always alert me when the mariachis performed. Our favorite performer was of course, Vicente Fernandez and we would sit together every time he came on TV. My oldest son's middle name is Vicente in his honor, as well, so this small piece takes the taxidermied toad from the mercado and brings him back to life and gives him a stage upon which to perform.
VBA: Redbud’s gallery notes described your style as one that bows to the Northern European Renaissance tradition. Please speak about your painting style, and also about your development and influences. Did you study Renaissance art? Who do you look at, what art inspires you?
RR: I do love the subtle way the northern renaissance painters distort their imagery for the sake of the composition and narrative. I didn't have very good background knowledge of artists from which to draw inspiration while in school, I was working full time, in school full time, so I didn't get to museums. Upon graduation in 1986, I started to look to other artists for inspiration and found Frida Kahlo of course, but just as important to me was Gregory Gillespie, the great modern realist. I also love artists who utilize a narrative so Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and more recently, Donald Roller Wilson.
VBA: Some of your figures are costumed in the garish style of Spanish colonial religious paintings, resembling the red poofed-out skirts one finds on the archangel Raphael or a Mater Dolorosa. Make a comment about Catholicism.
RR: I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic school and served Mass in my youth, but the biggest effect it had on me was in the great illustrations I found in our family bible. The colors were rich deep greens contrasting with intense reds that seemed to radiate from the page and tickle my eyes. I've never gotten over the pleasure those images gave me and I still have the bible to pore over whenever I need inspiration.
VBA: That must have been some bible. You painted a devil with rattle snake tails for ears, and a snakes head for his nose. Your depictions of El Cucuy are also twisted. Tell me about El Cucuy.
RR: The Cucuy is the Mexican-American version of the boogey-man and growin up, our parents, tios and tias would tell us these harrowing stories of disobedient children being snatched up and eaten by the cucuy. I remember looking out the window in the middle of the night and seeing him flitting from tree to bush to cactus, I guess that's what jump-started my imagination.
VBA: Explain your exhibition title Love Songs for the Palomia.
RR: The Palomia is a local slang that refers to the people of the neighborhood. You can't do anything without the Palomia finding out about it. When someone does something dumb, we say "that's the Palomia!" I consider it a term of endearment for the good people who surround us and live among us.
VBA: According to gallery notes your work “examines the mysteries of life, love and the commonality of the life experience.” Please elaborate.
RR: I hope I don't sound overly Rockwellian, but I am a very simple man with a very simple life and my search in my art has been to find our commonality.