Potter-Belmar Labs interviews Franco Mondini-Ruiz

May 22, 2009, San Antonio TX


Years ago, Franco Mondini-Ruiz quit a high-paying job in law, paid off his bills, took an extended self-desribed rite-of-passage-trip into Mexico, and then opened his infamous salon and art installation, the Botanica Infinito, on Flores Street in his hometown of San Antonio.  With this was launched an art career that took him all over the world, moving to New York City, contributing to the 2000 Whitney Biennial, winning the Rome Prize, lunching with the Queen of Egypt, and certainly much more.

A decade later, in 2006, San Antonio’s glamorously irreverent bad boy returned home to roost, establishing a lush and bountiful hacienda pregnant with beauty, poetry and art.  Faint echos of the Warhol Factory hang in the air with a swirl of beautiful assistants, dangerous pleasures, and wild, opulent parties, all in the service of and made possible through Mondini-Ruiz’ art making practice.

The son of an upper-middle class Italian Air Force man and a Spanish/Mexican beauty, Mondini-Ruiz is known by many as a generous, yet social boundary-pushing, provocateur.  He has both struggled through and reveled in the myriad contradictions of class, culture, and ethnicity that infuse and enrich his life.  A model hybrid who lives the reality of being “not quite one nor the other,” he owns the differences, fuses them together and enshrines them within his art.

Potter-Belmar Labs interviewed Franco Mondini-Ruiz at his west side domicile, in the bedroom he claims to have been his great grandmother’s.

[This interview is part of a three-part series.  Read Potter-Belmar Labs interview with ArtPace Director,  Matthew Drutt, also on Emvergeoning.]


Emvergeoning:  Tell us a little about the Botanica Infinito.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz: The Botanica was a readymade when I bought it.  It was a pre-existing botanica and it had inventory all the way from the 60’s.  Beautiful place. It was called Infinito Botanica, and underneath, it said “Amor, Dinero, y Paz y Tiempo de Gozarlo,” in my very best Spanish, which I think means “Love, Money, and Peace, and Time to Enjoy It.”  Unfortunately, some architects bought the building — friends of mine whose names will go unmentioned — and they painted out that gorgeous little mural, which was featured in the Whitney Biennial catalog.

Emvergeoning:  How does being from Texas affect your work?

More specifically than being from Texas, I have made a living being an artist from San Antonio.  Texas scares people ’cause there’s, you know, they think of Bush, they think of wealth.  They’re fascinated by it.  They’re interested in it.  But San Antonio is very intriguing to a lot of people all over the world.  There’s enough mystery to it that people are intrigued.  I really have made a career of it, and I don’t mean that facetiously or to be cavalier.  A lot of us from San Antonio, who either were born here or moved here, we love it.  It’s the love of my life, and it even breaks my heart, sometimes.

I have to watch out and not over-romanticize it, and not to just say, “oh, because San Antonio is part of me, I want to build it up.”  I’m haunted by the sense of place here.  I mean, my father’s from Rome, an ancient city with millions of layers.  San Antonio can’t compare, perhaps, with that– or maybe it can.  San Antonio probably has older indigenous populations even than Rome does.  You know, San Pedro Springs is one of the oldest continually-used centers of human inhabitation in the world.

Something intrigues me here, as a metaphor for a lot of things that I’m interested in and love, like cultural hybridity, class, industrialization versus agricultural society, castas, history, cosmopolitanism.

Emvergeoning:  You’ve described San Antonio as your muse.  How can a city be a muse?

I love it.  It makes me create.  It inspires me, and stimulates me.  Turns me on, like a muse.  It happens every two minutes!  And it might be so subtle, like:  Leslie [Raymond, of PBL] came over today, and she had her first menudo.  She sucked it down like her body needed that.   And it’s fascinating, that here she is, sophisticated, but she comes to the west side of San Antonio, and she’s eating this ancient food.  I mean, when you’re eating a tripe soup, you’re eating like an ancient Roman.  And here it is, just a few blocks away in a poor neighborhood in San Antonio.


It’s a mixture of high and low culture that doesn’t stop.  And while Leslie is eating the menudo, you know, this gorgeous guy covered in San Antonio iconography all over his gorgeous body is rolling a blunt, while his sister is serving us delicious dishes of food, while this white cowboy is painting the most delicate paintings and had just made this huge flower arrangement for me, and Carlitos is turning my little yard in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest cities of the United States into Versailles, with the last few pennies I have in the bank!  I love it!  [laughs]

And it’s like that every minute, if you let it!  With the slightest nurturing, with the slightest investment.  It’s like all those cactus in front:  they need so little, and they bloom so exquisitely.

Emvergeoning:  Do you ever fear that the muse could die?

Oh yeah, she’s gotten real fat.  [laughs]  That’s what’s interesting about a muse.  At least in this case, it keeps coming back.  Just in the nick of time, I’m saved again.  And refreshed. What reminds me most of it is that movie Le notti di Cabiria by Fellini.  The ending, after she’s been through so much pain, and being ripped off by everyone, she just meets some young people and they’re playing the flutes in the middle of the forest.  That’s San Antonio.  Which Alexandro [Diaz, San Antonio-born, New York-based artist] and I call Satyricon.  There’s a Fellini-like aspect here.

But I am heartbroken, and I lament.  I mourn this world that has disappeared, and at the age of 47 I’m realizing maybe never even existed but in my mind!  And Sandra [Cisneros, San Antonio novelist and poet] articulated this– Josie, it was her birthday; another friend of mine from my peer group, from the 80’s and 90’s, when we really had a little Renaissance going on, when the word “Mexican” was being used for the first time, you know, in public– that we’re part of this.  We created this artificial dream of what San Antonio is and could be, and we nurtured it and opiated ourselves in a very small perfumed circle of people.

And now, ten years later I’m like, was that a dream, or did that really happen?  And what I thought San Antonio could be and is or was, maybe never even existed.  And I’m almost frightened of it, to be mourning a muse that never even existed.  It’s very haunting.


The artist in me, though, comes back and I daydream.  I look outside my door and I see all these simple houses, which are probably the same scale and have the same patina as San Antonio did in the 1860’s.  Look out the window of my studio: it looks like a Theodore Gentilz painting from 1888.

Emvergeoning:  I wondered if you could help us make the distinction between contemporary art, and art that’s made contemporaneously.

I won the Rome prize in 2004, and I was with a very, very smart, smart, confident crowd.  But there would be conversations about art and what-is-art that just floored me.  Because they all went to Harvard and Yale, and are published.  And they were 100 years, in my mind, behind how people deal with art in San Antonio.  They really were.  And I found it so naive of them.  The distinction I made, though, from being in that situation, is between the human condition of artmaking and the industry of artmaking.  That’s where the distinction needs to be.  Contemporary?  That’s a word that’s not necessary.  Contemporary just means it’s happening right now.

I think it is part of our DNA and of our survival history to be artmakers.  All humans make art, I think.  And if you go to Wal-Mart, and you’re a housewife in flipflops, and you buy all these things and put them in your cart, you’re making art.  That’s your installation.  And I totally believe in that.  If you’re a Mexican man and you put all these tacky things in your yard that your neighbors are like, “God, that is so tacky, I wish they didn’t have that,” mixing Mickey Mouse with the Virgin de Guadalupe and those plastic flowers and all that.  If you’re a Mexican man doing that, that’s the human condition of artmaking.  If you’re a German in Berlin doing it, you’re on the cover of Flash Art.  And you are a rewarded member of the industry of art.

The industry of art belongs to mostly white elite, or elite in different ethnicities, with a smattering of token people of color.  It is a club.  I am part of that club.  I borrow from both fields, though.  I try to still stay engaged in the human side of following my instincts of artmaking.  I am lucky enough to be able to partake in the industry of artmaking.

So art directors, art galleries, art museums, architects that build all these ridiculously expensive buildings to house the art in, art writers, art magazines, all of that is the industry of artmaking.  And it’s okay, but it is a small, small sliver of what contemporary art really is.  And in my opinion, it’s pretty tired.


Emvergeoning:  It begs a certain question of inclusiveness versus exclusiveness.  Do you have feelings about that?

“Contemporary Art” means that you either have to be educated or in a certain socioeconomic rung or be willing to want to enter and play by the rules of that construct.  So this is a club, it’ll be easier for some to get in the club than others.  But by contemporary art it means something, it’s reactive.  By calling it “Contemporary Art,” it means you have to be willing to enter a group which is reacting to people that don’t want to be part of that club.

Our brothers and sisters that voted for Bush, they’re not part of this “Contemporary Art” world, ’cause you gotta be gay, or weird, or rebellious, or liberal, or truly ambiguous.  There’s all these ingredients that go into this cult.  And it’s okay, but it’s elitist, let’s not fool ourselves.

The bad part of why I think it’s come full circle is because it is reactive.  It’s not proactive.  I don’t think it’s trying to produce something necessarily that’s good.  I think it’s trying to react against others.  And “others” doesn’t always mean poor people, or people of color.  “Others” could also mean rich, white Republicans on the north side.  That we’re not them.  That’s why when I had my Botanica, I was about inclusivity.  Because I think people need to be more honest that when you’re an American you need to be a hybrid of a lot of different things.  And, you know, a lot of my best friends in high school were conservative Republicans.

So, tolerance is tolerance.  What I’m trying to say is there is cultural bias in the art world.  And it’s a very small audience, and it’s reactive.  I try to change that by making it inclusive, and get my poetry out.  I need you.  I don’t care who you are.  Buy my poetry.  And enjoy it.


Emvergeoning:  There is a new genre of art that people refer to as “New Media.”  Do you have any examples of some “New Media” work that you’ve experienced that has affected you in any way?

What is your opinion of what “New Media” is?  To me, using a Polaroid camera would be– I mean, I can’t barely even turn my television on.  I’m very low-tech.  So, one man’s “New Media” is another man’s…  you know.

Emvergeoning:  I think, for this interview, “New Media” is referring to the use of 20th century technology.

Yeah.  You know what?  That stuff doesn’t even register on me.  You either got it poetically or you don’t.  And you can use a camera.  You can use a space shuttle if you want.  Or you can use a coconut.  You can use a rotting cucumber in your refrigerator, and you either got it or you don’t.

I think everyone, as part of the human condition, makes art.  But some of it is the right art at the right time, that connects with the right people, in both the industry of art and the artmaking human condition.  Some people are the good poets, and some aren’t.  And “New Media” and all that stuff, that’s great, that’s fine, but real art transcends the materials.

Emvergeoning:  Can there be too much art?

You know what, guys?  I don’t think so, because it’s all art.  Everything’s art, I think.

Emvergeoning:  Do you get sick of it?

No… well, it depends on what you’re considering art.  This small thing we call “Contemporary Art,” I get sick of that, because it’s gotten too formulaic.  And now it’s a formula being taught in schools, it’s an industry.  That I get sick of because it’s not necessarily my favorite kind of art.  Can you get sick of too much art?  I really don’t think so.  I think we need so much more artistry in our lives.

But at the same time, let me tell you, everything that we think is not art can actually be weird art. You know, huge suburban sprawl, that’s the last thing you’d think is art, that’s art.  That’s art.  We’re tattooing the earth with all these spirals of tubes, and roads, and sidewalks, and housing developments.  That’s art.  And some of the things that we don’t even consider art are huge art forms being produced.  Looking at that aspect has kept me sane.

I need to be surrounded by art.  As you can see from my house, everywhere I go I need to have this operatic baroque crescendo and visual decrescendoing.  I think it’s what keeps me sane — if I am sane — with this rapid eye movement, I go up and down, the Justin Parr, and then the Bunnyphonic, and then the Jason Jay Stevens, and then the David Casas, and I hypnotize or massage myself by this rapid eye movement.


Emvergeoning:  There’s a myth from which young art students suffer, that relates to what you’re saying, and which I think you can address– that you’re either following this path leading through the Whitney Biennial and onto the cover of ArtForum, or you’re admitting failure.  Are there any other roles for artists?

Well. Your question is — I don’t mean this critically, but– is addressing a very, very small veneer of people.  You’re talking about kids that have already joined the industry of art and now the educational complex that’s part of it too.  I’m into the poetry of existance.  Being poetic is definitely different from artmaking.  I try to make art that is poetically infused.


My message to [aspiring artists] is, you need to come up with a strategy on how much energy and how much money and what sacrifices you want to make, and what you want out of life.  How do you want to see yourself as an artist?  Do you want a harem and a beautiful palace?  Do you want to suffer and be really cool and drink absinthe and die of a heroin overdose?  Do you want to teach, or be at the right parties, or be Jeff Koons, or be Andy Warhol, do you wanna be weird?  Do you wanna have kids?  Do you wanna have a family?  Do you want a house?  Do you want a penthouse?  Just figure it out.  But if you can’t even visualize it, it’s not gonna happen.

So, first you gotta visualize it.  And if you want to make a living bringing poetry to the world, then you need to find a strategy that can support it.  Do you have a trust?  Are you gonna marry rich?  My strategy is, I wanna make a good product that is as good or beats the competition — that’s controversial, what I’m saying — and at a better price.

I’m competing with other artists.  I really am.  I have a product, and I want it on a wall, or a shelf, so it needs to be better for what my target audience wants and it needs to be at a better price.  That is my strategy.  Another strategy might be, I’m gonna make an exquisite painting that takes me three years and I’m gonna sell it for $500, 000.  Or, I’m gonna decide that I am considered a national treasure and I’m a gifted sage and I will be in a very, very elite echelon of American society.  There’s all these different ways you can be an artist.  I’m a short order cook.  I’m frying up eggs and bacon and selling it.  Some of my friends make exquisite French sauces that take forever.  Some of my friends make elaborate cerebral dishes.

Emvergeoning:  How does the current economic situation affect your perspective, and art in general?

I’ve always been very uncomfortable with these very rich people with Prada clothes, I call them the baseball card collectors.  Some of them buy my work, most of them wish it were more expensive but they like it anyway, and some of them have not bought my work because it doesn’t fit the bluechip standard.  But I have a respectable New York gallery, so I get to be part of that world.

As you’ll notice throughout this interview, a recurring theme is that I’m jumping between different worlds, and kinda gleaning advantages from both camps, which causes me some internal conflict sometimes, but the bottom line is the elite audiences that see art as a prestigious status-affirming commodity, it’s gonna be the real players that are gonna survive that.  I don’t wanna be part of that world, but I do want to make enough money that I’m getting up in the morning, working hard, playing hard, and I’m treated respectfully, and I have a beautiful lifestyle.  And I can help others, and help myself, and buy my mom a dress if I want to.


I used to say something so blasphemous, early when the economy was getting bad, I said –and this is ignorant in a way, but– I said “Bring on the Depression. That’s the last time anything beautiful was made in this country.”  In general, God, that Depression was very good to San Antonio.  I have a “Visit San Antonio” catalog, from 1932 or something, and it shows San Antonio, post-WPA, and it’s as though everything beautiful in San Antonio happened because of the Depression.  It made Brackenridge Park, the Sunken Gardens, restored the Missions.  All those beautiful bridges we have, I mean, that’s all WPA.  So, I hope things get bad enough that someone says, “Let’s bring that out again.”  However, I’m worried though, because public art is so heinous for the most part.  It’s not what I consider beautiful.  Because it’s so much, now, by committee, and it’s having to fulfill so many needs, so a lot of it gets lost in translation.

Emvergeoning:  Is that different from the 20’s and 30’s?

Yeah, it’s masterful, what happened back then.  Just masterful.  Urban masterpieces.  And I can’t say that contemporary public art are masterpieces.  For example, that park that just has been done at Main Plaza, in front of the Cathedral.  That is a crime against San Antonio!  Why in the hell would you turn a shady, functioning park, full of old men playing checkers and poor people staying cool while they wait to take the bus?  They tore the trees out of the park!  And now there’s these huge kiosks in front of the Cathedral that look like air-conditioning vents fell off one of the towers.  You can’t even see the Cathedral now as you’re driving.

Anyway.  Bottom line is, in this economy, you can also spin things.  You can also tell people that, look, this is a good time to buy art.  You’re not buying hype.  That this is the time to help.  Let’s all hang on and help the artists, and buy their work.  It’s a good time to buy art.


Emvergeoning:  By “spin” you don’t mean “cooking”… ?

No!  Not cooking, but changing your perspective.  Turning lemons into lemonade.

Also, people need to slooooow down.  Artists [in the last decade] weren’t talking about art anymore.  All they were talking about was the new buildings they just bought, and the other building they just bought that’s cheaper than the other building, they can get three more tenants in that building– these were 22-year-old artists! Even in San Antonio!  All the people on the north side all thought they were rich, and had stock, you know, looked at the stock exchange all day long, and bought new houses and filled them up with ugly crap.

Slow down!  You don’t need three houses full of Stein Mart crap.  Slow down.  Buy one little house.  Fill it up with art.  Fill it up with poetry.  Stop the madness.  You really don’t need a whole lot to get by, you really don’t.  Materialism is wonderful, but a lot of things in life are free, and that includes poetry, and intellect, and conversation, and beauty!