It’s 10 p.m. the opening night of Ginormous, Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s new show in Alamo Heights. The caviar is gone now but the bar is pouring heavy and a brisk trade in monotypes dominates the action near the right wall of the gallery. His assistants pick one, then another print for the prospect to judge, their arms stretched wide but faces cool, attentive. Mondini-Ruiz is twirling everywhere through the room greeting newcomers still rolling in to the party. Then suddenly he’s back with the customer, haggling the deal through, offering bargains that can’t be refused. Done. The purchase is quickly wrapped in plastic and the buyer melds back into the crowd, another happy customer at Franco’s trunk show.
Mondini-Ruiz says his art sales are “run on the Mexican panadería model, there’s something for everyone, rich or poor.” The prints are sold for modest prices, the other walls are filled with paintings hung salon style; some are huge and expensive. Figures of dandies and couples done in a few quick strokes are seen repeatedly. The gestures recall 1960s illustrations in Esquire magazine and art factory paintings made to hang over couches in less affluent homes. In the center of the room is “California King,” a bedstead strewn with ceramic models of pies and cakes and a few pottery dogs. Mondini-Ruiz explains that this is his bake sale, but the entire mashup of hi-lo artifacts in the room are souvenirs, fundraising items to pay for the party.
It all began in the mid-’90s when Mondini-Ruiz abruptly quit his job as a lawyer and bought a Mexican botánica on South Flores Street. The building was filled with 70 years of stock, to which he added his own peculiar finds and constructions. The hybrid store/art installation space attracted new patrons while maintaining its neighborhood clientele searching for religious candles, herbs, and amulets. The project became a foray into social engineering as retail outlet, one of the few places in San Antonio at the time where rich, poor, queer, and straight might find themselves in conversations spoken in both English and Spanish. During the botánica era and later in New York, Mondini-Ruiz was often successful at raising high sums during fevered blitzes of art hustling, a brilliant start for a self-taught artist. But, he explained, “I could get the money, maybe $10,000, but would spend $11,000 on the party. No one was throwing parties like that at the time. I didn’t know that.” He would take the botánica experience and recreate it as an installation/event, Infinito Botánica, which in permutations has been widely seen, at the Whitney Biennial, galleries in New York, Italy, and Spain’s international art fair ARCO. His book, High Pink: Tex-Mex Fairy Tales, a collection of wry short stories musing on queer-Latino experience, was published in 2005 with an introduction by Sandra Cisneros. Not bad for a guy who quit his day job to party.
The show at AnArte Gallery, unlike the recent one-night recreation of Infinito Botánica at Artpace, will run to the end of the March. This time Mondini-Ruiz will maintain a temporary art studio in the gallery, painting during business hours. Mondini-Ruiz says that though he has done this extended performance/installation in Italy in both Florence and Rome, this is the first time he has done so in San Antonio. Food and conversation are promised to visitors, and, of course, more haggling with prospective art buyers.
The mix of performance and studio art has been a constant since he began on South Flores, but the range of his visual art is notable for being handmade by the artist and produced by and with others. His ceramic works are fabricated by a Los Angeles company dedicated to making models of food for restaurant display; for some time Mondini-Ruiz has been their largest client. He recently purchased the company. Though the ceramic pastries look more or less standard, there is always something a bit off — a cupcake is incomplete, missing its wrapper; a cake has a slice taken out, but the frosting is smudged and an edge is swished. The desired effect in all his work is rasquache, transforming cast-offs and the trappings of a low-rent world into high art. The tactic was made popular by artists of the Chicano movement, and still has currency, especially in San Antonio. With the world economy in jeopardy, rasquache may become a guide through all material culture, as it uses recycling, the adaptive reuse of discarded objects. Mondini-Ruiz often claims that his work is an attempt to valorize Mexican-American realities, a way to subvert Anglo society with a Latino perspective. His work addresses conflict, but not the sort imagined in identity politics. Hi-lo doesn’t translate into white, black, or brown. “We can’t talk about money,” he says, “we don’t mention class — it’s taboo.”
11am-6pm Tue-Fri; 11am–5pm Sat
7959 Broadway Suite #404
Exhibit on view until March 31