Pedro Ruiz’s art moves people to tears. When asked why this happens, the 52-year-old artist believes that Colombians saturated by negative images and stereotypes somehow “identify with his work.” By looking at something “different” and depicting an emotionally-charged landscape, images rooted in a Colombian identity, create a cauldron of response.
In his current exhibit “Oro” at Bogotá’s Museum of Modern Art (MamBo), Ruiz navigates his audience through 25 acrylic miniatures, each one containing a striking scene from daily Colombian life. The canoe crossing a sea or river of gold is as much of a metaphor for the journey Ruiz has embarked upon as an artist as it is an icon of the Colombian countryside, representing the struggle of the rural against an encroaching modernity.
And then there are the magnifying glasses poised next to the glass cases that house his work. When asked why the element of a hand-held lens was introduced into the exhibit, the artist explains that the first time he showed his unique series, a friend reacted adversely. “Nobody can see a damn thing!”
This remark caught the artist’s attention and consequently Ruiz began to see a parallel with the contemporary Colombian art scene: audiences were looking at, but not engaging on an emotional front, with art. “We must learn to look. So much of our life passes us by without recognizing our surroundings,” says the painter. “It isn’t until something is gone that we realize something was there in the first place.”
As part of a more comprehensive and on-going body of work, titled The Displaced, Oro is as much fine art as it is subtle political commentary. When looking at Ruiz’s golden acrylics, it is clear that behind the medium lurks a message of a country that is often looked at but rarely understood. “It is inevitable, one always has to take a stance,” says Ruiz regarding his strong pro-Colombia position.
Although born and raised in Bogotá, it was Paris, and the artistic bohemie of the 70s, which gravitated Ruiz towards an artistic life. After studying at the National College of Fine Arts in the French capital, the young artist found work at the famous city printmakers ATELIER 17. It was there that he also acquired invaluable skills as a lithographer and engraver. The near-photographic realism of printing is a fundamental influence in Ruiz’ work. Citing Goya, Lucian Freud, Velasquez, and Singer-Sargeant, Ruiz puts artistic technique above trend.
Upon returning to Bogotá, Ruiz worked for advertising giant McCann-Erikson, first as a commercial artist then eventually becoming its Artistic Director. Churning out drawings under pressure and deadlines made Ruiz understand that art is as much a business as it is unchartered creativity. Even as a young boy he would charge $1,200 pesos for “instant” gratification, sketching “pornographic images” for friends in the schoolyard. The influence of his years in mass media can be understood in his large canvas painting of poppy fields, which became his first major body of work titled “Love is in the Air.”
As we leave his sun-bathed studio, I ask Pedro Ruiz why he named his current exhibit “Oro.” He explains that it is an allusion to the myths surrounding “El Dorado” and the centuries of exploitation the land and this county’s natural resources have been subjected to. While the gold seems all around us, it is elusive. Ruiz wants us to understand that it isn’t so much of a mineral, but a state of the subconscious: a colour that best represents another, “other” Colombia. The exhibition runs until the end of August.