Conrad Ruiz Paints the Guys, Dudes, Bros and Men
Ochi Projects, Los Angeles
through June 1
Written by Lara Salmon
The paintings of Conrad Ruiz are captivating. Their clean and confident brush strokes allure the eye, as does their use of deep colors contrasted by white spaces. They have a painterly and comic realism, making them accessible to younger and non-art world audiences. In his show, Black, Red and Deadly, at Ochi Projects, Conrad paints only men. This is his first solo show in Los Angeles, and it consists of three large oil paintings and five small watercolors. He depicts men in moments of ultimate action, at the potential climax of their lives. The large works mock oblivious, cocky masculinity, while the smaller ones pay homage to the reality of death through burning.
An interesting place to begin considering Conrad’s work is his process of image gathering. He will tell you that he has a lot of folders on his computer of screen shots: there is a folder for heads, a folder for animals, a folder for drug cartel related-images, a folder for men on fire, and so on. These collections are grown from everyday scrolling through news articles, emails, and social media. What he deems potentially useful is saved and categorized, and when a painting needs a head or a horse, he will find one that fits. In this way Conrad’s paintings are collages of his daily digital intake. A landscape, if you will, of what he digests through his smartphone and computer.
The scenes of Conrad’s large paintings are semi-fictive historical events. Into them he inserts modern characters, painted with the flashiness of a comic book. “Come Harder II” is the combination of a Japanese Onbashira Festival with Conrad’s memory of riding Splash Mountain at Disneyland as a teenager. The reference to this iconic amusement park ride will likely catch the eye of many native Californians who share the memories of careening down the mountain in a log—waiting for the inevitable and unpredictable splash. When you dismount Splash Mountain, you cue with other ride-goers to view the photos that were taken in your moment of free fall. The uninhibited expressions of fear or delight in these photos were always entertaining. Conrad’s paintings, likewise, capture a moment unbound by gravity—the height of adrenaline right before a crash.
The title of Conrad’s show came from a book gifted to him by his partner: Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1870-1907. With the allure of cowboy adventure, the title to this book suggests it tells a history of race-based politics in the early American West. Being of a mixed background, Conrad sees something of himself in the characters, and the issues of non-identity they face. He grew up trying to navigate what he calls a ‘cholo’ persona with the influences of a nerdy older brother. This conflux of cool verse geek plays out in the paintings, battling at moments for what it means to be masculine. The work is self-critical, and mocks the idea of a male savior. We see this perhaps most in the painting which carries the title Black, Red and Deadly, and references North Korean propaganda. The testosterone-filled hero stands center stage. He totes a gun, and is clearly in the midst of a machine gun-like ejaculation fantasy. But nobody sees his glory; we’re all laughing at his climax instead.
The five small paintings are the quiet cohorts of Conrad’s exhibition. They are watercolor renditions from his “men on fire” folder. Counterparts to the large oil paintings, these are images of men who in reality may be in their final moments of physical climax. There is little way to know how it feels to be ablaze, but we might imagine it to be a thrilling experience in pain, or sublime agony. The gallery crescendos in moments of ultimate masculine sensation. The male body has been put on a pedestal of dark humor, or at least that is the empowering read.
Conrad’s solo exhibition Black, Red and Deadly is on view at Ochi Projects through June 1.
3301 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, 90018