Rubén Ortiz-Torres is a documentary photographer and filmmaker who harbors no illusions about the role subjectivity plays in his art. Shot in the streets of Tijuana, Santa Barbara, Mexico City and East Los Angeles (among other locations), his ongoing series of maniacally beautiful pictures treats urban centers and out-of-the way places as equally suitable stages for carnivalesque celebration. Giddy, dizzying and risky, Ortiz’s Fujiflex Super Glossy prints and low-budget films do not depict specific geographic locations so much as they give physical form to participatory events in which the usual rules no longer hold. Both phantasmagorical and realistic, his works transform the goal of multiculturalism into a point of departure at once attractive and accessible. A pair of color-saturated photographs embodies the polymorphous nature of Ortiz’s ambitiously idiosyncratic art. To make the first of these, he traveled to the tiny town of Campeche, Mexico, where he stayed for three days and produced a single image of the mock Statue of Liberty that stands atop an oversize pedestal in the town square. For the second, he visited South of the Border, a tacky roadside diner that doubles as a souvenir shop, motel and theme park just south of the border between North and South Carolina Side-by-side, the two prints demonstrate that despite the lopsidedness of American exports and imports, cultural exchange is a two-way street. Born in Mexico City, educated at Cal Arts and currently residing in Los Angeles, Ortiz insists that we live in a topsy-turvy world—and that art works best when it adds to this craziness.
David Pagel What are you working on now?
Rubén Ortiz-Torres Something that relates to things I’ve done in the past, but that is also different. I have commissioned a car painter to make a series of monochrome paintings. There are many different car paints, but I am working with the metallic bases and candy colors of lowrider painting. This type of painting functions very similarly to Venetian painting. You have bright layers of underpainting and many layers of glazes, giving you unparalleled luminosity.
DP So in a sense you’re making contemporary Mediterranean paintings?
ROT To a certain degree, yes. Academically, I was trained as a painter. Although I haven’t painted in a long time, many of the things I do relate to painting. There has always been this schism between my experience in school in Mexico and in grad school at Cal Arts. It’s funny, because my education was something like being pasteurized: it really went in two opposite directions, from hot to cold. When I was in Mexico I was very frustrated because I had to paint. It’s not like I had many options.
DP What years were these?
ROT This was in the ‘80s. The art school in Mexico was very traditional, there was no elaborate theoretical discourse, and very few alternative technologies were available. If I wanted to work in video—which I did—getting the equipment took precedence over anything I did with it. In photography, I worked in black and white because I didn’t have access to a color processor. The great advantage was that what I had then—and what I don’t have now—was time. So I painted. Painting is a very time-consuming activity. I could be in my studio for hours. Friends would visit, I had a social life within the studio, but I could still paint. All this changed when I went to Cal Arts. It was very frustrating, my paintings were not seen as artistic statements but as commodities whose “subjective content” supposedly established their market value. In contrast, my photographs—as crazy as they were—were taken seriously as objective documents of something that was coming from somewhere else. Even though what I was doing in the paintings was very close to what I was doing in the photographs, they were never read that way. So I stopped painting.
DP Because you weren’t interested in that sort of personalistic reading of your work?
ROT Well, the whole argument about painting being nothing but a commodity didn’t make much sense to me. I mean, I was coming from a context where painting could be used for any purpose. It was a medium for expressing any sentiment, whether political, religious, sensual, sexual, pleasurable or whatever. What you did with a particular painting defined whether or not it was a commodity. The simple fact that it was a painting didn’t mean much at all.
DP But at the time you were in grad school, photography enjoyed the privilege of functioning in all those ways.
ROT Not exactly. Back then, all photographs had an indexical quality. Mine were immediately read as documents brought back from somewhere else, especially since I was supposed to be a legitimate…
DP Mexican artist?
ROT ...Mexican artist who supposedly represented his country’s contemporary reality, an insider’s point of view. Although my photographs rarely present an authentic “inside view,” this is the way they were read. It’s especially perverse because I was doing my best to make images of things I thought were clearly related to America.
DP Do you think that your new paintings will be subjected to similar misreadings?
ROT There’s always that possibility. The responses these works generate could be very contradictory because they are both “purist” in a formal or conceptual sense—almost Puritan in their notion of what art can be—yet at the same time they invite other discourses. I am interested in how seductive, sensual and beautiful they are. I’m using flake, metal flake, and at the same time I feel that I’m getting to this meeting point between two extreme positions, say that of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and a street aesthetic, neighborhood car culture. Nowadays I get confronted with the argument that abstraction or minimalism is a language that does not relate to certain social or political practices. The truth is that these styles started out with specific social and political goals, with radical agendas in which aesthetics and politics were not opposed. I don’t know if it’s my intention to revive that, but at least I want to question their separation.
DP Didn’t McCracken and Bengston and Kauffman and other L.A. artists do similar things in the ‘60s?
ROT Of course I’m responding to the California Finish Fetish school. But I’m also thinking of the architecture of Luis Barragan and the work of Mathias Goeritz because for me the most incredible thing about them was that they were able to create their own languages within the abstract language of modernism. Both made cultural statements as strong as—if not stronger than—the muralists. So it is not a matter of the iconography or the materials that you use. It has more to do with the creative power of really making up your own language and participating in that. I also think that their works go beyond functionalism to fill what they thought of as spiritual needs. I wouldn’t use these words to describe my works, but I am sympathetic to their desire to engage us emotionally and sensually, in ways that are not strictly rational.
DP Something beyond functionalism?
ROT To pleasure, perhaps. I believe that it is possible to use something as narrow as monochrome painting to change the rules of the game—to come up with something that can come back to life and talk about something else and make us see otherwise.
DP So you’re really interested in transforming what is available into something else. Rather than customizing cars you customize language.
ROT Yes. I am customizing the language; I am not reinventing it. The form is still there, the parts are still there, but I am allotting them to my personal taste and needs. I hope that people can relate to these paintings and participate along with me even if their language comes from a different situation. I would hope that Tony Ortiz, the guy making them in East L.A., can relate the abstract patterns he paints on cars to my practice as an artist and to art in general.
DP Does your new work circle back to what happened when you were at Cal Arts?
ROT Sure it does. When I think about my experience at Cal Arts I see that I had to respond to a fundamentalist and dogmatic conceptual school that did not allow me to create the paintings I wanted to make. Having just come from another dogmatic, academic and fundamentalist school where I couldn’t do anything other than paint made me see the similarities between the two otherwise very different places. I became very skeptical about both extremes. Once you have a system that does not allow for any other, I don’t see any difference between one system and the other. Dogma is just dogma. Fundamentalism is just fundamentalism. Both are bad for art.
DP But you survived.
ROT Along with many others. It’s funny, but it seems that the best way to survive is to rebel. Out of Cal Arts came more rebellious painters than any other school. In an environment where painters are not supposed to thrive you have David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Lari Pittman, Jim Isermann, Yishai Jusidman, and now Ingrid Calame, Laura Owens and Monique Prieto. You have very strong artists reacting against the regime. The same thing happens in Mexico; the artists doing the most interesting work are coming from the academy of San Carlos. Trained as painters, they are using readymades, making objects and other kinds of conceptual art. The most well-known is Gabriel Orozco, but there are others who are as good, if not better. The point is, what do I do in my context, when I have been through both extremes?
DP You make photographs that seem to be about identity but are actually about its undoing.
ROT I guess so. The photographs are full of contradictions and shifts and changes.
DP I think of them as focusing on flux and slipperiness—putting a bunch of elements in the blender and hitting the highest speed on the dial.
ROT Well, it also has to do with the role documentary photography plays in our view of the world. National Geographic photographers go to faraway places and define them by the pictures they take. They establish the borders by establishing the differences. In my photographs, I try to emphasize that these differences are not so well defined. What interests me is that both realities exist side by side. Next to my crazy castle advertising Coca-Cola in the jungle are traditional villages.
DP They want the clear image. And you want the messy image.
ROT Well, I want the messy image not just because I identify with it, but also because it tells more about the world in which we actually live. In order to question the whole practice of documentary photography, I had to make documentary photographs that functioned differently. It had a lot to do with the response that I was getting from my images.
DP An identity-based response?
ROT Which I still get. If I go to Mexico now and show my photographs, people want to read them as documents of what Los Angeles is. If I present a crazy taco stand where a Japanese guy is eating a burrito…
DP A vegetarian burrito!
ROT ...a vegetarian kosher burrito—they want to say, “Oh that’s Los Angeles.” They see my picture as an objective representation of Los Angeles.
DP In a sense they are right.
ROT They are, but I could also take a photograph of the palm trees and the convertible, and the beach and the girl in the bikini, because it all exists in L.A. Or I could take a photograph of L.A. where it absolutely looks like Mexico City, where I go to Mariachi Plaza and I take a picture of a mariachi band. Both are part of Los Angeles. Of course, if I am doing a piece on Los Angeles for National Geographic, in order to have that mariachi image, I would first have to complement it with an image of a girl in a bikini. Otherwise Los Angeles would be Mexico. At this point I don’t think my photographs represent specific places anymore. They have almost created their own third space.
DP They’re really about mobility.
ROT Yes. I think they are about mobility. They are about objectivity and how we select what we see as reality. They are all still grounded in reality.
DP It’s often argued that the world is becoming more homogenized—that every place looks like everywhere else. Do you think this is true?
ROT Yes and no. For me, these are very complicated issues. Recently, I was invited to participate in a show of Mexican art in Montreal. The premise is that we are mobile and everybody travels and there is not one place and that therefore you cannot reflect any sort of specificity.
DP The old nomad thing?
ROT My point of view is that there is no way to talk about a homogeneous reality of any kind because the world is so fragmented. So the only homogeneity is fragmentation. We have an inconceivable abundance of specificities, even microcosmos. I bet that within Montreal you’re going to have all sorts of local practice that might look superficially alike, but are totally different worlds.
DP I don’t believe that everything is the same the world over. Mickey Mouse may be everywhere, but Mickey in Anaheim is not the same as Mickey in Tijuana.
ROT I agree. I think we’re becoming bilingual. We are learning. We may be speaking English as a universal language but we have accents. Underneath the similarities we speak Romanian or Turkish or Californian. You can tell the difference between a guy from Santa Monica and a guy from Northridge. A surfer speaks a different language than a skateboarder who speaks a different language than a punk rocker.
DP What does it mean to you to be an American artist?
ROT The beauty of this is that it’s an open question. It’s more about what we want than what we already have. What do I want to be as an American artist? Of course, I’m going to be selective and choose my favorite parts out of the abstract construction of America, which I absolutely value. I am fascinated by the idea of being an American artist even if I don’t know if I can qualify for it.
DP The artist part or the American part?
ROT According to immigration, I’m still working for both. No, I convinced them that I am an artist. The American part is a long process. I guess I totally identify with this sort of utopian construction of a nation, the utopian construction of an idea. America, as opposed to most countries, is not a country that responds to a historical past. It is a country that responds to an idea, to a constitution, to such ideal notions as democracy and freedom. I would add social justice, since it’s the only important element being left out. The idea is that we’re creating or negotiating in a democratic way—that we’re involved in an ongoing social or cultural or artistic process that is never finished. For me, this is something worth fighting for. I would not, however, identify America with a specific geographic location because I think that this project is really universal. That’s the beauty of it. I think the fact that the United States has been open—a country of immigrants—makes it a universal project, a world composed of everybody. Likewise, Mexico is also a kind of arbitrary and abstract invention based on a blend of many cultures and races. José Vasconcelos talked about the Mexican revolution as creating a cosmic race. They say that if you mix everything, the result is going to be a Mexican. You mix Black and Chinese you get a Mexican.
DP Not a bad fantasy.
ROT This is the reality of the region, of the Caribbean, of parts of South America and of the United States, too. For me, the challenge of the whole thing is…how we can construct this project incorporating everybody in a democratic way?
DP I just read a biography of Thomas Jefferson and it became really clear to me was that what Jefferson wanted America to be was a place where the government would rarely intervene in the affairs of its citizens, who, for their part, would enter public life voluntarily.
ROT This sounds to me like the Spanish Republic. It is very anarchist. I agree with it completely. The complicated issue here would be how you would deal with private property.
DP I love the voluntary component. Democracy is not about institutions telling individuals how to behave.
ROT It’s amazing. Of course it is an ideal. And practice is another question. But it is definitely something to strive for. In Mexico, I went to a grammar school that was founded by Spanish anarchists who fled the Civil War. It was the ‘60s and it’s kind of interesting to see the way they described their plans. They sounded a lot like Jefferson’s description of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. A similar moral tenor can be found in the book I am reading by Albert Einstein, in which he talks about his experience as a Jew and what he considers Judaism to be. The way he describes it, he considered himself to be Jewish as long as Judaism meant the absolute freedom to pursue knowledge and social justice in an open-ended, participatory manner.
DP Along with your paintings and photographs, you also make videos and installations.
ROT I have made several films. Currently I’m working on a 3-D movie for the Getty Center. I’m very excited about it. A long time ago I read about this Chevy Impala in a museum in Havana. Ché Guevara used to drive it. The car seemed to stand for certain positive values and progressive ideas I grew up with in the ‘60s. It also embodied certain generational contradictions that were particularly vivid for me as well. At the same time, it was part of my childhood in a polluted urban sprawl—the largest, most populated city in the world. For me, the car also evoked a line from a song by The Clash: “I believe in the kind of revolution where everyone drives a brand new Cadillac.” It also turns out that the model Ché drove is the most desirable or classic low-rider.
DP What year is that?
ROT 1960. Low-riders love the ‘58, the ‘59, the ‘60, the ‘63 and the ‘64. From 1958 to 1966 all those cars are classic and the Chevy Impala Super Sport is at the top of the heap.
DP Partly because of Ché and partly because of the way the car looks?
ROT No, it’s because of the car. I don’t think low-riders care that Ché Guevara drove one. But the car looks great; for me, it is this beautiful object where two notions of freedom converge. It is the meeting point of not just two senses of freedom, but of two aesthetic systems. One is iconic and represents a religious point of view. In it Ché practically becomes a saint. The other is formal and is concerned with how an object looks and what it does.
DP And at the Getty?
ROT My piece is based on their collection. I discovered that my favorite part of the Getty is the research center. I like the fact that it is very hard to say whether or not the artifacts archived there are art or documentation. Included in the collection are many things that provide information about art and the humanities, but they are not themselves works of art. The photography collection raises this question even more dramatically. Many of the documentary photographs are more interesting than the ones deemed to be artistic. Among my favorites is a collection of stereoscopic cards documenting the Spanish-American war as CNN might do so today. This was, by the way, the first war constructed by the media—the newspapers played an important role in generating the momentum to start it. It was a hotly contested war. America was getting its first colonies, the Philippines and Cuba. Some felt that a former colony should not have colonies or become an empire. Anyway, the photographs are particularly beautiful because they include 3-D versions of the battleships that were sunk. The battleships look very abstract—almost like a Richard Serra sculpture but from the beginning of the century. Very strange objects, very modern for the time I suppose, especially contrasted against the Rough Riders and how people lived in Cuba, working sugar cane plantations.
DP You are interested in the documentary aspects of these images?
ROT And how theatrical or sensationalistic they are. We still go to the IMAX theater to see the Arctic, Everest and other exotic places. I want both parts to play a role in this piece. I also thought the stereoscopic cards provided a good excuse to do something with Ché’s Impala. So I’m making a 3-D movie of a dancing lowrider—a sculpture that transports you physically and mentally. I hope my installation says something about the past, the present and the future, while providing viewers with certain pleasures. The part that stands for freedom is Ché Guevara’s all-American car. I’m particularly happy that it’s taking place at the Getty because it doesn’t get any more classic than a 1960 Chevy Impala. You have the Greeks, but the car is the high point, a neo-classical moment infused with religious and political overtones.