Sprinting toward Babylon

Conrad Ruiz paints the speed-record horror and hilarity of contemporary life

VISUAL ART I remember the first time I heard about Conrad Ruiz. I was standing by the fire on the patio of the Eagle, a spot that for me is a site of great tidings. A pair of talented San Francisco artists told me with enthusiasm about this young painter whose large-scale works depicted things like a man riding the nose of a killer whale as it burst forth from a pool, or a coach getting a golden shower of Gatorade from his triumphant team. According to their accounts, Ruiz magnified and entwined the absurdity and ecstasy of his subject matter. I had some cathartic laughs just imagining his paintings.

Detail from Overload. Challenger explosion not pictured.

When I first "saw" Ruiz's art, online, it exceeded my expectations. In particular, I was blown away by Overload [2009], which among other things deserves consideration as the best piece of "Barack Obama art" to date. Panoramic and vibrant even when shrunk 25 times in size, Ruiz's watercolor works on paper and canvas once again incited a convulsive reaction. I laughed my ass off upon seeing works such as New Fall Lineup [2009] for the first time. But the longer I looked, the more caught up in wonder I became about their myriad tiny details and teeming — at times disturbing subtextual currents.

What goes on in Ruiz's imagination? On the eve of his first solo show, at San Francisco's Silverman Gallery, I caught up with him as he navigated the social conflagration of Art Basel Miami, the megafair where at least one magazine tipped him as the leader of a "new generation of art stars." Whatever one makes of that claim, Ruiz — who is also plotting some collective artistic efforts with friends — is the splashiest crest of an exciting new wave of young California painters.

SFBG How are you doing?
Conrad Ruiz I'm alright. I'm just sitting on South Beach. I wanted to find a place to gather my thoughts, and I'm watching this guy tan himself. I can't believe he's doing that. He's got these great stomach muscles. [Curator and Berkeley Art Museum director] Larry Rinder and I were talking about doing sit-ups before we came here, but we both just got busy — we never did it.

Miami's fun. I kind of wish I could take my shirt off everywhere, but I feel a little bit squishy.

SFBG It seems like your art would look good in Miami.
CR The colors are finding a home here. There are a lot of bright red and yellow bikinis around. This couple nearby are either arguing or also tanning themselves. They just sit and look at the sun, kinda like lizards.

SFBG What do you think of the Tiger Woods news frenzy right now? I wondered about your take on him. In a way, I thought he might not fit along with some of the athletic figures you depict, because golf isn't so much about dynamism.
CR But you always hear comedians say, "Just leave it to a black American to dominate another sport." Chris Rock essentially says, "Wait till we get on ice skates, man, we're going to take over hockey."

Tiger Woods has been developed into this brand, aligned with Nike. It's a very intelligent campaign. It's not Obama, but he's been this person who can do no wrong. That's the personality that has developed through whoever is handling his marketing. It's more than his being an excellent golfer, he's also been displayed as this great human. We don't know that much about him, and then something like [the car accident and ensuing scandal] happens. It's all we get, and it's kind of sketchy, and it happened to fall on this awesome Thanksgiving weekend.

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