Social art: Cruz Ortiz's 'Hecho Farm' exhibit at UT's Visual Arts Center
Eating a turkey leg at San Antonio’s annual Fiesta celebration may be a political act.
At least if I understand Cruz Ortiz, San Antonio’s de facto art ambassador, correctly.
Ortiz, who has a new show at the University of Texas’ Visual Arts Center, makes social art in the great tradition of Joseph Beuys, the man who said “everyone is an artist.” Everywhere Ortiz looks in San Antonio he’s bowled over by people acting, for lack of a better word, like artists.
When Ortiz travels, people ask him, “Why don’t you move to New York City or L.A.?,” he says from his San Antonio home. “And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is like Gold Land over here!’”
Ortiz roamed all over as a kid. His parents worked in Juarez, he says, and he later lived in Houston for a time. But he really likes San Antonio. Like, “mucho.”
When friends visit he takes them to the rowdiest bars, they go dancing and drink at lounges tucked inside gas stations. Then there are festivals. “There’s nothing like holding a big greasy turkey leg and funnel cake at Fiesta,” he says. “There’s a million people in the streets with paper banners … Dads who wear mariachi hats made of Bud Light boxes.”
“Damn, I love this town,” he says, laughing silently.
“People treat their yards like incredible museums-slash-shrines.”
One he calls the “Tweety Bird House.” “The owner, like a nutjob, collected every damn tweety bird you could find, and stapled them to the house.”
That is the kind of thing that can make San Antonio feel, to coin a phrase, “like a whole other country.”
“It’s like a hacienda here — we don’t even know what’s going on in the rest of the world,” says Ortiz.
“Y’all do it so naturally” in San Antonio, people tell him. “They’ve got such a richness in their culture, and they don’t even know that.”
That’s why Ortiz is trying to put his city into focus, by bringing San Antonio with him.
Stepping into his “Hecho Farm” at the UTVAC is like walking into a working print house. Finished work lines the walls. On the floor is a tipped over radio transmitter the size of a small ladder that Ortiz will bring to life over the course of the semester’s collaborative “work parties.” The first was a screenprinting party. Visitors brought a shirt and Ortiz and his crew printed on it. For the next parties participants might build benches and stairs.
Ortiz is trying to create a space for DIY events that unite a community.
“It’s just fun to build stuff,” he says.
“At my old studio I used to have (radio) shows,” he says. He brought his Tejano station — Beto The Bear 1670 — to the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, and at home he and his son just goof around with the power of the medium. They have a segment called Robot Talk.
“We talk like robots about dumb stuff,” he says. “It’s just radio, it’s fun.”
Spaztek, the invisible auteur of Ortiz’s prints and paintings, is “modeled after the combination of a combat veteran, an illegal immigrant, a pathetic romantic,” he says.
The works on the wall are in bright, cartoonish colors that say things like “Menudo Power” or repeat the word “Basta” (enough). One is a colorful raygun, and others, such as a T-shirt that says “Tengo Hungry Por Tu Love,” play with “Spanglish.”
Ortiz is revelling in the idea of bringing a lowbrow Do-It-Yourself ethos into the highbrow academic setting of the UTVAC.
Though he gets the feeling that UT is a little uneasy with his lack of a plan (they put the kibosh on space for tailgating) and, he adds, they operate a bureaucracy that he’s very familiar with: Ortiz teaches art at San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High School.
“I was really into working at the grassroots level, you know, seeing where I could help out,” Ortiz says. “My intent was to work with neighborhoods and communities — disenfranchised folks.”
“Working in a public school has got to be the most frustrating thing in the world. It used to be about educating, then it was about training. It’s just like a song and dance of some sort.”
Ortiz reflects on the various positions he’s gotten himself into over the years: mastermind of a neighborhood pushcart derby; mural maker; makeshift radio operator; art teacher.
“I consider myself a person who’ll get down and work,” he says.
Is there an explicit political component to his work?
“Oh yeah. Everything I do is political. I’m a teacher in Texas. That’s a political act.”
Cruz Ortiz, “Hecho Farm”