Ruben Ortiz Torres
Date of Interview: Dec 07, 2000|
Topic: Interview with Ruben Ortiz Torres in his home in Echo Park, California
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.
LatinArt: I notice a lot of cars in your work. The Zamba del Chevy piece at the Getty, the Alien border patrol car, many representations of them, as well, in your photographs. Can you talk a little more about this?
Ruben Ortiz Torres: Yeah, you know that’s really interesting...I think that’s a real L.A. thing. People ask me if I know a lot about cars. The truth is I don’t. I grew up liking objects. When I was a kid I did models. I did cars and I did planes and boats and I guess I liked boats and planes more than the cars. I remember liking certain cars that would grab my attention and those would be the more eccentric ones. I like counter-culture so I am very drawn to dragsters and low-riders. People take these cars to an extreme, and there is something about the aesthetics of those cars that is very baroque, very surreal, and irrational. Coming to California, I just realized that this is a sub-culture, part of a whole theatre space that resembles a lot of what I do in the art world. Therefore it seemed like a space I could participate in...but what I realize now is that any space could do. And if necessary, I could be interested in doing anything, like dance, theatre, writing, whatever. I would deal with the same issues, but since we’re here in California, these cars are a part of our daily lives and being here lets you do this.
LatinArt: I find it interesting that being from L.A. there are definitely certain things, ideas and sensibilities, like cars, that are very much ours and my friends from New York don't get it. Has your work been seen as more of a southern California experience?
Ruben Ortiz Torres: I find it very weird. I was just in New York and this woman asked me, "Have you shown this car in New York?" and I said, "No, I've tried. It didn't fit." It literally doesn't fit anywhere! Then I went to this gallery that I knew and the owner said. "Who buys this?" Like the guy couldn't believe that someone could buy this work. I have to say that this can be done in L.A., it can be shown in L.A. and can be sold in L.A. as well. In fact there is a collector that has this machine. Then I realize, in a way, that this place is unique and special and you can do all these things here. Yes, on the one hand it's a car city, but on the other, it's a newer town. New York is such an established modern city, and what I mean is that it's early twentieth century steel and glass. L.A. is a post-modern city. You can take certain risks here that I don't know if you could in New York, unless you do painting or you want to see painting. Then you're better off there. If I were there I would probably be painting. I mean, I started as a painter, and I know how to paint. I had a very academic training in Mexico City, so I'm sure I would be painting in a gallery, but here I make experiments of all kinds. I remember being in Cal Arts doing my paintings and I always felt they were being misread as objects that were commodities that were meant for the market, and that painting was dead; that you could not address political issues in painting because you would sell them to rich people, or whatever. Coming from Mexico City that sounds like nonsense to me because we have a political painting tradition. We were often engaged in the argument of the commodity, and well, you can do the most radical non-objectual thing and eventually it will be commodified.
LatinArt: Everything can be commodified...
Ruben Ortiz Torres: Exactly, everything can be commodified. It has nothing to do with the medium. To get back to the issue of using cars. What I really like about that medium is the process. It's not an individual process. It's a process that forces you to negotiate, forces you to collaborate. And as an aesthetic strategy, what I've learned and what I'm really interested in, here in California, is the whole process of customizing. The development of art and culture has been a development of cultural exchange. Interestingly enough, the modes of representation in the twentieth century have been very aggressive in possessing meaning and controlling information; from collage to appropriation. Marcel Duchamp, for example, his ready-mades are a very aggressive way to claim meaning out of an object he just found. "I found this thing, I decide that it's art and it becomes my art." Modernity asserts or reverts the meaning of an object by way of a very aggressive appropriation. Now, customizing, it seems to me, is a much more democratic dialogue. Ok, so I like this Chevy...this Chevy responds to my economical position and satisfies certain aesthetic needs I have as a middle class American. However, because I am Mexican or African American, or for that matter, anything...then, this product exists for me in a certain way but does not fully express me. So then, I adapt this to my particular taste and necessities, while always paying homage to the original product. In other words, a low rider is not producing a new car, he is participating in this process of dialogue and negotiation...a lot like what hip-hop culture does. You pay your homage, you participate, you take whatever you like and you add to it.
LatinArt: The meanings are open, and the author or creator is not privileged in these meanings.
Ruben Ortiz Torres: Yeah, you participate in this process, and of course once you enter the playing field, you quote and you can be quoted. You do your work and your work is game for everyone. That's the way this culture operates.
LatinArt: I see your work, in this hybrid blending of collaborative participation, and this whole soup of mestizaje as an interesting balance of observer and participant, and even a bit of the protagonist as well. How do you see this balance playing out?
Ruben Ortiz Torres: Yes, it's a very complicated position, but I'd rather occupy this position than non at all. It's like when a photographer attempts to have an objective point of view and document something. I've been reading Heisenberg where he demonstrates that one cannot measure anything without altering the way it operates. He was dealing with quantum physics but I think the same happens in art. If an anthropologist travels to a little town in Mexico to observe the Indians, by the time he gets his camera set up they would be staging something and his "observations" would be wrong. In the same way if I come from Mexico to L.A. and I try to document whatever happens in L.A. in an unbiased way...well, that's not going to happen. At the same time I'm not even interested in that, because the phenomenon that I'm trying to represent is the same phenomenon that affects me. I am very conscience that I cannot create culture by myself, and at the same time I cannot represent culture without myself and participate in it. So I put myself in a situation where I say, "Ok, I'm going to engage myself with American culture," and the implication of that is that by the time I finish representing it I am an active participant of it...for better or worse. So I have to assume that kind of responsibility and let's see what happens. That's the kind of process we should become aware of and take the responsibility to participate with. Art and culture are interlocking systems that need people. Art is not going to happen by itself. If I'm going to make art I need you as a spectator to hear and modify what I'm saying. And this dialogue eventually becomes culture. Maybe as an artist I play a part or a role, but the audience plays a role, writers, gallery owners etc. The question about my photographs and movies and to what extent they are documentaries, or not. Well, they are. People ask me, "is this image constructed or not?" I don't think it matters. What matters is how the image is appraised
LatinArt: Earlier you mentioned your traditional art studies in the San Carlos academy in Mexico. After having studied here at Cal Arts and worked in Los Angeles, how have those studies influenced you? In other words, how has the study of the traditional forms of artistic formalist language; line, color, texture influenced your work?
Ruben Ortiz Torres: It's a very interesting, yet difficult question. As you mentioned, I had a very academic training in Mexico. I would draw for hours and hours. I mean, I could make a very classical portrait of you now, and I like to see those paintings. I enjoy good paintings. I think that it's like, once you have it it's always there, and it will resurface somehow or the other. I know I will come back to drawing or painting at some point. I became interested in art as a kid because I wasn't very good at it. I mean, there were guys that could draw and paint better than me, so I wanted to really learn how to do it. I went to school and I learned the method to do it. Yes, it was academic, but remember that San Carlos is the oldest art school in the Americas. At the same, time it was terrible when it came to theory and there was no such thing as a theoretical debate. Then, after I came to Cal Arts it was the opposite; a complete disdain for painting and any physicality in art. In the end, I found that both places were very similar and both were very fundamentalist. For me the trick is finding a balance, because I find the extremisms on the right being as dogmatic as the extremisms on the left. So, then again, I don't find a problem with painting or not painting. Painting can work, there is a space for it. It can operate. I feel the same way about nationalist positions. They can be very dogmatic, very intolerant very exclusivist, but to work against them can be as well. To be an internationalist, formalist and to negate local discourses and not be open to any kind of cultural specificity can be the same...It's a balance thing, man! It's a balance thing. So, to go back to your question about texture and those things; yes, they matter to me as long as they don't become an end to itself.
LatinArt: I saw your inclusion in the Ultrabaroque exhibit at the MCA in San Diego (2000). It's a topic that's being discussed right now. What is your concept of the baroque in the current scene, and how does it play out in you work?
Ruben Ortiz Torres: That's a difficult topic for me, personally. We could talk about this rationally, but there's also a reaction that's very intuitive and it has to do with your experience. Baroque aesthetics are so imbedded in Latin America, that I am attracted to them automatically. We are at the crossroads of many things and we live this schizophrenic reality. But that condition that I thought was Latin American, now is becoming more universal, now this is happening in cosmopolitan centers in the first world. Precisely because of that, because you have this schizophrenia, it acts something like a dual life for dual realities. In everyday life these dualities exist. You know both, but you know you have to operate on different levels for each. When you're in the barrio, you have your Impala and you fix it the way you like, but when you go to art school and you have to learn and know certain things, you get yourself in that mood, and you understand what it's about. And these two things collide and sometimes they produce this hybridity that doesn't make any sense whatsoever, right? There are some very interesting failures that happen in Latin American art, for example the Mexican reaction to Minimalism, was this thing called Geometrism, and Geometrism was the baroque of Minimalism. So you have these guys making geometric prisms that were super complicated and intricate. So, ultimately, this modern principle of being reductivist went berserk. So, in a way, it's nonsense because you were supposed to have something reductivist and synthetic and you ended up with something baroque and exuberant and sensual. Of course that doesn't work. I think in Latin America want to build with too many things because we have a reality that involves too many things, and as I said, this is evolving in other cosmopolitan centers as well. It's very interesting to go to New York and see an artist who does something really simple like a line on the wall, a very simple formalist thing. I might see the same work produced by an artist in Brazil, and I bet if I speak to this guy he will have the most baroque explanation for it. It will be about sexuality, religion, colonization and class issues and things that usually you don't want to address. So, yes, there is a different way to understand things, and people now are calling it baroque or ultrabaroque. A few years ago they were talking about multiculturalism. A few years before that they were talking about post-modernism. But the truth is that that hybridity, that schizophrenia, has existed in cultural productions since Marco Polo discovered something different than what he knew.
LatinArt: Of course, this discourse is nothing new in Latin America.
Ruben Ortiz Torres: It's like, the discussion of race in this country really exasperates me a lot. In the United States there is a debate about race, that is somehow trying, to be discovered, negotiated...to find spaces that have existed already for five hundred years! Like the current debate of how to deal with mixed race...I mean, really! The census has a space for mixed race and asks people, "What do you feel more like?"
LatinArt: Sounds like a colonial casta painting.
Ruben Ortiz Torres: Exactly like a casta painting...bring out the chart and find out where you fit. I mean, these things deal with more complicated thought processes, and these are the processes that interest me about the baroque, not just the saturation of space. It's the conflicting points of views and positions that I'm interested in; how to deal with the process of cultural re-negotiation. I mean, I didn't have a religious upbringing, in fact, just the opposite, but being Mexican I seem to have a close understanding and relationship to certain Catholic characteristics like; pleasure, guilt etc. Also, certain puritan aesthetics bother me. They simply bother me. I like Minimalism when it's sensual. I like Donald Judd or Richard Serra, but other artists drive me nuts. I mean one hundred white paintings!...I get upset, really.
LatinArt: Let's not forget that these aesthetics represent and stand for certain values.
Ruben Ortiz Torres: The contradiction then, is that Protestantism supposedly lent itself to Modernism in its work ethic, certain economic changes, the creation of a bourgeoisie. And of course the Counter-Reformation lent itself to a feudal economy, it was less productive, and it didn't lend itself to the development of science, etc. However we've left certain things out of the equation; the one successful thing that came out of the Counter-Reformation is the art. It produced incredible art. I mean, the Spanish Baroque...I don't think there has ever been anything as incredible. Really, I think we end up in modernism by two different avenues. On one hand you have the Dutch painters, and you have Rembrandt, and you have the school that is more synthetic that ends up in Mondrian. But I also think there is another route that leads to modernism that interests me more and that's the baroque art of the Counter-Reformation. Baroque art somehow leads to Romanticism...because there's passion. And after Romanticism we go to Goya and we end up with this irrational modernity, which in turn leads to Picasso, to Surrealism, to Buñuel. Yes, I love Mondrian, but I really love this other stuff, this questioning of modernity within modernity with this irrational impulse, this sort of Romantic impulse. If we think of the aesthetics in this country, it's in fact very interesting because we think that the United States, because it's a Protestant country, has aesthetics that are puritan and so forth...hey, hold on, hold on! I think there's a second Counter-Reformation. The Cold War seems to me to be a confrontation that's is very similar in terms of its morals and operates in a very similar level to Catholics and Protestants. Somehow the left, the communists have a moral argument that is very puritanical. "You know, we have to achieve social justice, this social revolution, this proletarian revolution. We have to give up these worldly pleasures of material goods to achieve this." And they produce a very puritan form of early Social Realism. On the other hand, what do capitalists do? Capitalism doesn't have a moral argument. Though we do keep hearing about freedom and democracy, but that's like...whatever. The real argument that capitalism makes are the material goods that are attractive, that are seductive, that are sexy, that become objects of desire. If the Catholic Church produced churches for the kingdom of heaven, then American society produced Cadillacs, man, and all sorts of baroque things. And that Counter-Reformation defeated socialism, so we should not take lightly the aesthetic power of the baroque.
LatinArt: Or the power of images themselves...
Ruben Ortiz Torres: (in agreement) Or the power of images themselves, the power of iconography.
LatinArt: As a student of colonial art I've always been interested in the political context of the baroque. The fact that the Council of Trent meets and puts the investigation of imagery near the top of their agenda really speaks to the power of images.
Ruben Ortiz Torres: The same thing happens today, not necessarily in the sense that they're going to go hire a painter. But imagine Steve Jobs trying to save Macintosh. He has to say, "Are we going to make a better computer? No dude, make it beautiful, add some color, paint it magenta!" (laughs) People have to buy the thing. That's what helped save American products. Because American products are not good, man. We don't have the better cars or anything. What we're selling is a way of life. You're selling sex. You're selling the beach. You're selling Hollywood....Hollywood. Hollywood, man, Hollywood, the triumph of the baroque! (laughs)
LatinArt: Time Warner then, is Charles V!
Ruben Ortiz Torres: (laughs) There you go!...
back to artists