“We either begin to be conscious of the global disaster we are causing or there won’t be a way out,” states Pedro Ruiz as we sit down in the bright kitchen of his Bogotá studio. “My biography may be precarious,” states the artist when asked of his years growing up in the Colombian capital. Wanting to study architecture, then music, Ruiz studied at the prestigious Universidad Nacional’s Music Conservatory for eight months. But a trip to Paris changed all his plans and he landed a job at “Atelier 17,” the famous printmakers founded at the turn of the last century by Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988).
Enjoying the French capital during the 1970s, Ruiz acquired valuable skills as a printer working with incised intaglio plates. Exploiting oil-based inks with different layers of viscosity, Ruiz also took courses at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, where he claims “he didn’t miss a single lesson in Anatomy or Art History.”
After five years in Paris, Ruiz returned to his home in Bogotá and began working with the advertising agency McCann Erickson. From drawing as a commercial artist, he rose through the ranks to become the company’s Artistic Director, helping win many awards for ad campaigns at international festivals.
Because he could withstand the pressures of meeting strict deadlines and the demands of clients, Ruiz saw that the scope of art was so much larger and inclusive than the “conceptual” works displayed in many of Bogotá’s art galleries. “To transcend the conceptual, to embrace technique, is to unite people,” states Ruiz of his artistic essence. When the advertising years drew to a close, Ruiz was determined to return to the craft he had always enjoyed as a child, when he sketched on notebooks, surrounded by his father’s many books and a member of a refined Bogotá family.
“Drawing has always been natural to me. Even my teachers identified this talent in me at an early age,” says Ruiz. From ink sketches on paper to large oil works on canvas, Ruiz began working without the representation of a gallery or agent. Wanting to avoid the closed and self-indulgent cliques of an art circuit, he preferred to work with his thoughts, embracing the solitude of his studio and spending many hours reading specific texts on how nature shapes society.
“Many of my works focus on the reality of the world I live in. I try to communicate like the inhabitant of a specific territory, without alluding to a specific ideal of national identity.”
Ruiz’s work is a narrative layered with emotional and spiritual themes. The artist’s fascination with regional ecology and biodiversity is best seen in the fine detail of the many Colombia-specific birds, animals and plants that populate his paintings. To be true to the country’s exuberant flora and fauna, the artist carefully examines reference books, so that every brush stroke and color of his imaginary nature is precise.
The predicament and fragile existence of Colombia’s biodiversity is a dominant theme in all of Ruiz’s works, as are social issues which plague the nation, such as a longstanding war on drugs and the fumigation of the countryside with chemicals which Ruiz depicts with long thin plumes of white paint against stark blue skies. Connecting transcendental issues with apparently simple ideas makes this artist “learn to think like Mother Nature with socially-committed art.”
Although Ruiz basks in the solitude of his work, he is very much a painter’s painter, organizing as he did in 1999, a collective titled ‘The Natural Library’ in which more than 50 artists, intellectuals, and scientists from across the nation were invited to share their knowledge. The sharing of ideas and the work of creative “think tanks” led the artist to create another forum the following year that he called “Nadieopina.” Here, a group of artists were invited to develop experimental projects. In 2002, Nadieopina was asked to showcase works in Bogotá’s Gallery Santa Fe.
One of the main attributes of Ruiz’s artistic streak is exposing the jocose with the serious. He contrasts emotions in his audience between what could be interpreted as “funny” while at the same time stirring a debate over tough contemporary issues. Such is the case with Ruiz’s “Love is in the Air” series which also hints at John Paul Young’s 1977 disco tune.
Love is in the Air portrays upright soldiers covered from head to toe in bright red poppies. The poppy is an emblematic flower, which blankets fields across Europe. It is also a “cursed” flower from which opium is harvested in the mistcovered mountains of Colombia. We are drawn to Ruiz’s poppy theme, in part due to the symmetry of the bright red petals, in part to be shocked by the visceral association of flower “power” and war.
But it was the “gold” in “Oro: Espíritu y naturaleza de un territorio” (Gold: Spirit and nature of a territory) which thrust Ruiz into the artistic stratosphere. Few times in this country’s long romance with art – from Gregorio Vasquez to Fernando Botero – have audiences and critics been so mesmerized by a body of work.
When the 30 miniature paintings of “Oro” caught the experienced eye of the Museum of Modern Art (MamBo) director Gloria Zea, they were destined for a large audience. Making their debut on the nation’s art scene in 2010, each painting contains a scene of Colombian rural life: from a canoe crossing a sea of gold releasing butterflies, to a jaguar being transported and sitting in lush rainforest. The show was so poignant that the MamBo’s director extended it for three months. Ruiz had set a “gold” standard for art in Colombia.
Ruiz’s paintings are a metaphor of the journey this artist has taken. As well as the many horizons yet to appear. His cinematic vignettes of an imagined countryside steer us into an unknown; the rural world framed by modernity. Ruiz states that this intensely personal work conveys an “innocence” of his surroundings. “I must insist that it is a naïve look. I never forget violence, but I have it clear that it is only one aspect of our reality; we are more than the national and international bad news show.”
Colombian audiences rallied to the lure of “Oro.” Through the paintings, they were touched by the grandeur of the landscapes, a familiarity of place, that “territory” imagined yet rarely seen. To observe the paintings close up, the artist placed magnifying glasses so that observers could examine all the details.
This physical act of having to see a “street vendor,” a floating “orange tree”, the tall Cera palms, touched deep emotions. For the artist, the gold background reflects the gilded character of a nation, be seen in its people. “Not everything that shines is gold,” remarks Ruiz.
International audiences have also been enthralled by the mastery of Ruiz’s “Gold.” The works represented Colombia during the 2010 World Economic Forum in Cartagena. The exhibit then toured the country and on to the Santo Domingo Cultural Center in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. At the Ateneo de Madrid, the exhibition marked Spain’s bicentennial celebrations. It was recently shown at the Real Academia Española, in Rome.
Ruiz has obtained many awards and distinctions for his unique perspective and talent. Most recently, he was conferred as a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) by the French government for his contribution to Colombian art. In 2011, Pedro Ruiz saw his entire work reproduced in a beautiful coffee table book by Villegas Editors. The accompanying text was written by Colombian author William Ospina.
The artist is currently preparing a new series of paintings dealing with the canoe. As a means of transporting people and goods in many of Colombia’s remote places it is also a symbol of forced displacement – a tragic and persistent issue of the Colombian conflict.
The creative power of Pedro Ruiz is grounded in technique and his capacity to “transform” the individual spectator. While Colombia occupies a central theme in his work, the territory becomes a universal one, interacting with our own sense of reality. Due to the critical success of “Oro,” Ruiz would like a permanent home for his masterpiece, so that it can be appreciated by generations to come. It’s part of our cultural heritage and a permanent reminder that what is so real in this country, is magical and mesmerizing.