Conrad Ruiz is still on the last Olympics, even though there’s a new one around the corner. In fact, someone ought to suggest to him to get a head start on the 2016 games in order to be timely. It’s not because he’s lazy, it’s because he’s intricate. Thusly, Ruiz’ garage/studio in Glendale, California only has six works in it, including a study for this issue’s cover. The 28-year-old artist can’t keep up to the demand for his work. His watercolors take months to make, but these aren’t the delicate pussywillows you might expect from the soft medium—Ruiz’ paintings are powerful, sexy, and sporty. Fittingly, we meet on the morning of Super Bowl XLVI to discuss his series of tessellated imagery that reference the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, as well as his newest works, which he calls ‘ab-scapes,’ which will be big oil paintings of shirtless, buff men holding chains and baseball bats—a gang of sexy dudes.
You played sports right?
Yeah. Everything. I was really good at soccer, even though I did that less. Boxing, taekwondo, freshman football. I did track-and-field a lot. The only thing going for me was that I was fast.
So, you were doing sports, but how did you find art?
I would say my art practice through high school was me drawing my teachers having sex with animals and then passing the paper around afterwards. I goofed off, and the teachers hated me because I always had the highest grades, but I was also annoying. Plus, I was drawing them having sex with animals—usually a bear, because I would just draw a circle and have a bear leaning over.
What did you start to go to university for?
Education, because I spent a lot of time with my high school counselor—the teachers would send me to him for drawing pictures. I was like, ‘I could do what he’s doing, because he’s just hanging out, listening to oldies.’ I was planning on teaching, and in the mean time getting my master’s in education to be a high school counselor by the time I turned 24. That was my plan. Then, I took a couple painting classes, because it was required, and I really liked it.
So much less lame a plan!
I know! I’m first generation. I had to sit my mom down, and tell her this is actually a possible goal. I knew she went through a lot of crap to get here, and I didn’t want her to think that I was ruining it.
‘Being an artist now doesn’t mean I’m a fuck up, Mom!’
Yeah! It doesn’t mean that now, but still, she was like, ‘I want to be able to die not really worried. You really need to go all the way with this.’ I was like, ‘I am, Mom. This is a pretty good magazine, Mom. This was one of my goals.’ I’ve been in a couple other magazines, and she’s like, ‘Do they pay you?’
Is she sort of starting to get it?
I feel like she gets it more than people I date. I feel like I’m figuring out what fine art is. I was doing these paintings when I was 24; it’s stupid shit. I’m starting to find a different way of painting.
I see very much the progression. There is still a very masculine thing happening in your work.
When I have other visits, I will need to separate my works. These are all separate bodies of work. This is from a ‘climax’ series. It’s me creating my own movie, but then just painting what I thought would be the climax. And of course the climax would always have to have sexual undertones. This one is my black on white golden shower scene. That really scratched my itch, I guess? And then these are called ‘Beijing’ pieces. I wanted to roll with this idea of domination paintings. All these paintings were about the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Did you go?
Actually I didn’t watch the opening ceremonies. I was in a hotel room with my girlfriend at the time. It was on, and I was like, ‘That’s dope,’ but then I ended up doing something else. But when I remembered, what interested me is how so many people were able to create this insecure flex. That’s what its about, it’s about a country as an identity flexing in front of the world. I think of a flexing competition, but there is only one contestant.
They were overcompensating.
Right, and I thought there’s a lot of that in masculine behavior. The thing is that they actually are becoming the most powerful nation. But I think it was just them not knowing how to express that yet. In the ceremonies, they talked about every contribution they’re ever made to world history. Basically, they had a dance about how they invented paper. And the typewriter. I did two paintings about how they made the Chinese press. Hundreds of people had blocks on and they were pumping up and down to mimic the press, and it was a beautiful wave. At that time, I was really getting into geometric abstraction. So that’s why I was shifting these orgasm paintings to create this similar type of energy thrust.
It’s just a different way to communicate the same idea.
These are watercolor, though, and in the meantime, I’m learning how to oil paint. These are my first ones, aside from the first painting class I took.
Is it hard to figure it out?
It’s hard! Like, there’s two Avatars: there’s the Avatar with the blue people that was in 3D, and then there’s the Avatar that was from a cartoon series. That one was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It’s a monk that bends fire. With watercolors, I’m water bending, and now I’m oil bending. With water, it’s graceful and smooth. With oil, it’s chunky and the solvents give me headaches. It takes a lot longer, but you get more detail. So, it’s a different beast. But also, I’ve already tried these paintings in watercolor and they don’t work as well.
And you’re almost using them in juxtaposition towards this masculine hardness in your paintings? Painting is in and of itself a very sensitive activity.
It’s a little more intimate when you’re sitting down. Watercolor paints have to be used when you’re sitting down. You oil paint standing up. These are going to be big. They’re studies. These are the ‘ab-scapes.’ Like, if you didn’t know me, the painting is just abs. A 10-foot painting of abs. That’s insecurity. Do I have abs? No.
How did you find a gallery?
I had two pieces in my grad show. One of my pieces had already got picked up by the Berkeley Art Museum. The other one—there’s a tiny museum called the Wattis, that’s connected to the California College of Arts—the director of the Wattis introduced me to his friend, who is now one of my collectors. He wanted to hear about my other piece, so I said what I had to say about it, and he was like, ‘I’ll take it.’ Jessica [Silverman, Owner of Silverman Gallery, San Francisco] was right there. She was like, ‘You want a show?’ It was my birthday. After I got to talk to her more and more, it seemed like I was extremely lucky, because she’s my age and my height. I feel like she works as hard as I do, and I feel like she is able to utilize a lot of connections that there’s no way that I would have.
After that, I moved down here to see what I can do with L.A. galleries. I’m trying to figure out the L.A. gallery situation. I keep meeting people, and it’s productive, but the work that I once had visits with, keeps getting placed. The one I’m finishing is already on reserve for some collector who buys a lot of Barnaby Furnas. So I was like, ‘I want to be in that collection, but I kind of want this for a show.’ It took a month to make, but I could use the money. I mean I’m pretty broke.
One of my favorite things as a journalist in the arts, is to find someone in this transitional period, like you. What are your short-term goals?
I want the to open shows in the context of the place where it’s shown. San Francisco is so important because of the political and sexual connotations of the city, but with L.A., it’s the idea of movie magic—Hollywood-ness. There’s a loudness of personalities and I really want to integrate that into my practice. And I need to get more exposure. I need to work on the business. I’m a kid, and I feel like I’m if I’m going to burn out, I might as well get really big before I burn out and overdose.
I was lucky enough to find Silverman. She has a lot of exposure in New York and Europe and a little bit of L.A. I don’t want to jump into a New York gallery yet, because I feel like I’d be jumping from step one to three. I’m very transitional.
Are you going to continue to work on projects like the Beijing series in the future?
I have at least maybe two more solo shows worth of that work, but then I want to start graduating into the ab paintings. I started the ab-scapes, because I was dating this 40-year-old lady who really loved Abercrombie & Fitch, because that’s what 40-year-old Thai ladies like.
She bought me so much Abercrombie stuff that I had to return it, so I have all these gift cards. I keep going in to see if I can use them, and I don’t want anything there. They have those sexy dudes—these big posters. I’m smelling the smell the store has, and they have Friday night house music playing, and I’m just there looking at this sexy dude in black-and-white, and I’m thinking about how, when I was in high school, I was really into my idea of being super cool. I had to be tough and intimidating to other guys. I wanted girls to find me sexually attractive. So I wanted to make these ab-scapes about these caricatures of what I wanted to be during that time—that amount of being sexy, but tough. That’s why they’re black-and-white—I’m ripping off Abercrombie photos.
I get a lot of fan mail from people thinking that I’m a gay artist. It’s also the context, because Silverman shows a weird mix. Sometimes they’re gay or they’re Jewish or like Luke Butler, who everyone thinks is gay and Jewish but he’s straight. He’s like me, where he’s making collages of wieners.
So, do you think that most people think your coming from a gay standpoint?
A lot of people talk to me about that. People think the conversation we’re having is about my view as a gay artist in sports. To me, it’s my way of abstracting the body, which is by putting hundreds of people in it like in the Beijing series, and then now just zooming up close for the ab-scapes. I need a digital projector, so I can start seeing like the beads of sweat sitting on the chest. That sort of thing reads as maybe cool, calm, collected and honest. Also, there’s the historical work of figure studies—Greek and Roman sculpture.
Do you feel a reversed politicization, where you’re creating something that if you were a gay male artist, it would be politicization in and of itself to work in the hyper-masculine realm.
I feel like if I was gay, I’d try to find a different route with it. What I’m really interested in is this sort of non-identity. I think the only thing that’s very personal about it is how I really want to express my personality by completely avoiding myself. How did I manage to project my personality through found images of Beijing performers? And how do I express my personality through what could be considered very homoerotic imagery.
I feel like if I was a gay artist, that would be the given was that I’m fascinated with the male figure so then I would probably be searching for another that other way to express myself.
It would be too obvious.
Exactly. That’s the straight read: you like men so you paint men. I do like men. I want to paint my champions, and I mean that in the most honest, dorky sense. I’m interested in male-to-male relationships, because I don’t have that many friends that are girls—I do, but I feel like I connect with the boys.
Do you feel like your collector is mainly looking to find masculinity?
I feel like the people who buy the works, they all they all seem to be so different. Men and women, couples—a basketball player bought one of my paintings. I forget his name. He coached, too. I suck at basketball. That one seemed very straightforward, where an athletic dude bought an athletic painting.
I had a visit with a collector who seemed to only be interested in the male body. He wanted to collect works of naked dudes, and he was really friendly, and super gay, and he thought I was gay. He still didn’t believe me when I told him I wasn’t. He was like, ‘You know you’re really gay.’