Climate Change, Mexican Folk Healing and Fantastical Beasts Collide in South Texas Painter’s Austin Show
Ricardo Vicente Jose Ruiz’s eerie black-and-white paintings draw on his South Texas roots and his fear of global warming.
When a freak meteorological event dropped 7 inches of snow on parts of Corpus Christi December 7, many residents rushed to capture the moment in photographs before it melted away. Ricardo Vicente Jose Ruiz chose to pause and take it all in. The artist, who was visiting family in his native Gulf Coast city, looked at the palm trees blanketed in white and saw only the signs of a damaged earth.
In the first days of the new year, that vision returned to him when he found himself in the middle of another snowstorm. As Ruiz rode out the “bomb cyclone” at home in Richmond, Virginia, where he is a resident artist at the 1708 Gallery, he created the work in his latest show: “For When the Leaves Grow Cold, but I Still Require Your Shoulder.”
Each began as a black canvas. From a flurry of white paint emerged the creatures of Ruiz’s magical rolodex: a grinning dog engulfed by flames, a bat in flight, a spear with a face. The finished products, on display through February 17 at Big Medium in East Austin, highlight the stark and uneasy dissonance between sunny South Texas and the winter storm.
Though Ruiz says he intends for the paintings to be foreboding signs of the implications of climate change, his work is also intrinsically hopeful.
Ruiz says this balance of fear and hope is especially familiar in the borderlands, where fantastic and chaotic stories defy the binaries so often placed on them by others. Ruiz follows in the visual legacy of his father, Ricardo Ruiz — a renowned South Texan painter known for surreal depictions of the region’s folklore. In the elder Ruiz’s paintings, La Llorona and skeletons wearing sombreros dance across crowded, candy-colored canvases. The younger Ruiz also leans heavily on roots buried deep in South Texas soil. Specifically, that which lies 40 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, on his grandmother’s ranch in Mathis.
Tilling the soil and tending to plants, Ruiz came to see people as natural caretakers of the land. He says working the land was “this thing in which you knew what was required of you to maintain yourself, and to maintain others — and it was important that it was a family affair.”
In his artwork, Ruiz’s beliefs about natural resiliency come together through curanderismo, a form of Mexican faith healing practiced by his family that invokes animism and natural remedies. Ruiz takes on the role of curandero, calling on nature spirits in his paintings to heal the broken land.
Ruiz says he’s a firsthand witness to powers of this magic. As a child, he was involved in an accident in which he nearly lost his leg. His uncle, a shaman from Monterrey, gave him the “nine grackle cure”— a ritual in which nine grackles are captured, killed and brewed into a soup. Ruiz said the broth is fed to the afflicted for nine days, at the end of which the shaman lights a broom on fire and chants, “No te vayas vente.”
“When something traumatic happens, that gives an opportunity for the devil to enter your blood,” Ruiz said. “With the ritual, the idea is you’re drawing the devil out of your body with fire.”
Fire also features prominently in the show’s centerpiece, “Follow the River.” It’s the least subtle of the lot — biblical flames rage in the foreground; a black dog and shirtless woman are omens of impending doom. In this context, Ruiz’s paintings serve as prayers. The canvases are tacked to the walls with silver Mexican healing charms called milagros, often placed on family shrines and altars.
Though the subjects of his prayers — drought, fracking or freakish snow — vary widely, Ruiz’s work never fails to be both scary and optimistic.
“The snow for me is this thing of kind of ebb and flow, something that is pretty bad in the duration that it exists, but there is also something else coming afterwards,” Ruiz said. “In this sense of ‘out of a blizzard, things will grow’— I feel like that’s a generalized allegory about the way America is currently in terms of its political sphere.”
Top caption: In “Follow the River,” a black dog, a naked woman and a raging fire serve as omens of both a dark future and a glimmer of hope. Courtesy Sarah Frankie Linder.