Rubén Ortiz Torres : Alien of Exceptional Ability

After the exhibition ‘Plata o plomo o glitter’ at Royale Projects, Los Angeles, July 2020

All the drawings were made by Rubén Ortiz Torres for his journal of the ronawave period: Ahi viene LA PLAGA, 2020. A selection is published here courtesy of the artist.

He always played with joyful irreverence in the house of life

by Rosanna Albertini

October 2020. Like children jumping rope, training their feet to forget the obstacle and go fast, move, until the counting grows to the exciting discovery of a new ability, almost a different personality invisible to adults, but easy to share with the other little aliens lost in dreams of cheeseland or other outerspaces, all the art pieces by Rubén Ortiz Torres jump rope over borders: between Mexico and US, popular icons and sanctified boxes for arts, baseball mascots and codified symbols. His alien toys are incredible rope jumpers, some of them as big as real cars stripped of heavy organs, so they can move their limbs in the air like mechanical puppets, try to fly, and fall down on the stones where they finally dance the music of freedom. Why should they keep going straight?

Why should artists abandon the dirty dusty bumpy roads through the house of life and condemn themselves to the freeways? As Allan Kaprow says, “art tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself…” hard to believe he wrote it in 1958, if I say more than half a century ago it seems farther away, a long time ago. Kaprow was one of those wanting to put a bit of life into art. He was also saying, indirectly, modernism is not covering the whole of life, restrained as it is in the room of art. 

Rubén’s reality, which is also our ground and background since humans appeared, starts in ’64, when he was born on a planet still licking wounds after half a century of wars. Damage, pain, destructions, children deformed by nuclear radiation, people orphaned by the myth of eternal progress, by the cult of ideal forms. Trash, ruins and low price objects replaced the cult of human exceptional creativity. The idea of commodities became dominant. Although trained in a traditional art school in Mexico City, Rubén has dedicated his hands and mind to these disgraced creatures — artifacts in large numbers uncovering dreams and aspirations of most everyone trying to escape the pressure of reality. Artifacts and their producers, after all, are no different from the children of the Titans, the giants disgraced by Zeus. Titans stole fire, the fire that never ceased to burn and be cherished among us. For an artist of our days, this fire is the powerful, dense central region releasing the will to fight back against brutality and stupidity. A new enlightenment is necessary and heartfelt. 

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES, Witness Protection Program, 2020 silverleaf, urethane, lead, candy paint, flake, one shot enamel, and Alsa chrome paint on decommissioned Tijuana Police car panel 48 x 62 x 5 in Courtesy of Royale Projects, Los Angeles
RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES, Chota, Cholos, and Narcos, 2020 silverleaf, urethane, lead, candy paint, and flake on decommissioned Tijuana Police car panel 48 x 62 x 5 in Courtesy Royale Projects, Los Angeles

Ortiz Torres: “I replace money with silver, and bullets with lead. I add glitter over layers of paint. Glitter is for me another form of power: power of seduction. Maybe more powerful what we do with culture, we fight back, making life something worth.” 2020, on the phone. 

That’s the difference between now and 1958: the house of art has exploded. Every fragment moves and brings beautiful flowers to the house of life which, instead, is shaken by disbelief. 

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES, Burnt, 2020 urethane and crystals on decommissioned Tijuana Police car hood 48 x 62 x 7 in Courtesy Royale Projects, Los Angeles
RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES, Glitter Protest, 2020 silver leaf, urethane, lead, candy paint, flake, and pigment on decommissioned Tijuana Police car panel 44 x 56 3/4 x 5 in Courtesy Royale Projects, Los Angeles

Rubén picks up and reproduces images and objects when they have been disfigured, offered to the public in their cheap and funny version, winking to assure us that to be illegal is not a sin. Or he dismantles and remakes a lawn mower to let it perform like an artist, in honor of the immigrant gardeners in Los Angeles.

But recently, under the pressure of the ronawave, the magic transformer who had painted and transferred into art pieces Darth Veder, Ninja Turtle, Piolin, —marionette puppets for sale on the Tijuana border— calling them “Aliens of Exceptional Ability” (1998), has started to paint himself as an alien. As we all are, forced to distance, defaced, warriors. The ronawave needs it, for us it’s survival. No distance between the artist and ourselves. “The world goes round and round / In the crystal atmospheres of the mind, / Light’s comedies, dark’s tragedies, / Like things produced by a climate.” (Wallace Stevens)

The face Rubén shows, at the same time, are his paintings. Luminous mirrors of California colors and pictorial traditions, they mix pixels and crosses, innocuous splashes of silver and light, lots of light first of all. As if the paintings were telling us: look at yourself in our surface, and bring up the best of you. They were all painted on broken police car panels found in a junk yard in Tijuana.

“It is easy to see how underneath the chaos of life today and at the bottom of all the disintegrations there is the need to see, to understand: and, in so far as one is not completely baffled, to re-create. This is not emotional. It springs from the belief that we have only our own intelligence on which to rely. This manifests itself in many ways, in every living art as in every living phase of politics or science. If we could suddenly re-make the world on the basis of our intelligence, see it clearly and represent it without faintness or obscurity, Ortiz Torres artworks would have a place there.” 

Wallace Stevens, Briarcliff Quarterly, October 1946

 (The last line is altered by me replacing “Williams” with Ortiz Torres.)

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES, Red Skin, (in 3 parts), 2020


Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, The Library of America, New York, NY, 1997

Allan Kaprow, The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, 1993

Rubén Ortiz Torres, DESMOTHERNISMO. Catalogue of the survey of work from 1990 to 1998 at Huntington Beach Art Center, curated by Tyler Stalling, Huntington Beach, CA Smart Art Press, 1998

Rubén Ortiz Torres–THE TEXAS LEAGUER, Catalogue of the exhibition organized by the Glassell School of Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, curated by Valerie Loupe Olsen, 2004