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Conrad Ruíz
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken
August 7 – September 18, 2021

Nino Mier Gallery is pleased to present Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, a solo show of seven recent watercolor paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Conrad Ruíz.  The exhibition places icons of the contemporary American imaginary—a Target dog, a monster truck, a skateboarder, a Rolls Royce—within a theater of fire and smoke.  But such dramatics do not just serve an apocalyptic cult of destruction and decadent decline. Rather, Ruíz’s works celebrate the generative potential that burning might bring, whether it be for thrill-seeking fun, rebirth, or rebellion.

Ruíz’s process begins as an archival project.  He saves photographs from various sources – the news, the web, the street – that are particularly rich in both content and composition.  He then paints these images, sometimes with slight modifications to better integrate them into his visual world.  Bye Bye Bullseye (2021), for instance, is based on a photo taken in Oakland during the 2020 protests against police brutality.  The painting centers a young Black woman standing before a blazing dumpster with her right fist in the air, a gesture which was popularized during the labor movements of the early 20th century, and which symbolizes Black Power today.  In the left edge of the frame, a small plastic dog – Target’s corporate mascot – lies fallen on its side, immobilized, staring blankly at the woman’s fist in the scarlet-colored sky.  Ruíz’s process of culling together and painting powerful images wrested from the content glut gives such moments a permanence that our ever-refreshing feeds do not.

Ruíz has long worked in a figurative mode reminiscent of Malcolm Morley’s photorealist work and Tim Gardner’s explorations of middle-class American masculinity.  For this exhibition, Ruíz opted for watercolor as opposed to oil or acrylic paints.  Water might extinguish fire, but when mixed with pigment, it also creates it: the sense of flux and flow that such diluted paint imparts on paper gives his field of flames a sense of immediacy.  His chosen medium also complicates his interest in boyish violence.  Big wheels, jumps, crashes, booms: these are cornerstones of play for the average young American male.  From four-wheelers to Marvel movies (it is no coincidence that Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, 2021 features a monster truck named “AVENGER”), the media diet fed to boys tends towards the drama and pageantry of destruction.  Ruíz’s watercolors infuse a sense of vulnerability and delicacy—qualities that are fundamental to any eruptive, daring act but that often go unexplored—to what he likes to call his “boy zone” scenes. 

Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken is titled after a 1991 live-action film about a young, early 20th century American woman who rides diving horses.  The movie is based on Sonora Webster Carver’s 1961 memoir A Girl and Five Brave Horses, a heartfelt story about the protagonist’s love for performing daring feats in a Wild West show at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.  Though Sonora Webster Carver was blinded by an injury incurred while diving, she continued to perform as a horse diver for another eleven years.  The film highlights the clarifying, vivifying effect that leaping on a horse mid-air had on her.  Ruíz understands Sonora’s will to “get back on the horse” as a structuring force in American social and political life, besieged by a continuous stream of crisis, but guided by a (sometimes blind) will to persevere. 

But Ruíz’s works share more in tone with David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) than with Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, as Ruíz’s sentimentalism exists alongside his irony, his humanism alongside his anarchic mischievousness.  His painting Spirit of Ecstasy is titled after the winged angel that stands atop the Rolls Royce bumper, but his painting shows the car on fire with a plume of black smoke billowing ominously at the top of the composition.  As with Lynch, Ruíz’s ecstasy is not uncomplicated delight, but rather is prophetic and trance-like, guided by forces beyond individual control.

Conrad Ruiz (b.1983) has had solo exhibitions at Ochi Projects, Los Angeles (2019);

the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara (2015); Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco (2009, 2012); and Yautepec Gallery, Mexico City (2011).  He has recently participated in group exhibitions at The Pit, Los Angeles (2021); No Gallery, Los Angeles (2019); Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles (2018); Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2018); and the Consulate General of Mexico, Los Angeles (2018).  Ruíz received his MFA from the California College of the Arts, and lives and works in LA.