Franco Mondini-Ruiz spins mojados, cheese, and coke lines into his own creation myth
San Antonio favorite son Franco Mondini-Ruiz has a new book, High Pink: Tex-Mex Fairtytales, that captures his artwork and the laissez-faire late ’80s, early ’90s era in which it was born with typical Franco panache: equal parts wicked humor, sweet nostalgia, politics, and libido. One segment, “El Jardin,” a tribute to the now-defunct oldest gay bar in Texas, asks “Why can’t they just restore it to what I truly feel was its historic apex — when it was the only place in town where you could score a dime bag and listen to Edith Piaf on the juke box?” Each entry is accompanied by an exquisite photograph of a Mondini-Ruiz found-art sculpture — a manger with Salon d’Automne Grand Corbu chairs for “Don’t Forget Where You Came From,” for instance — that epitomizes his rascuache aesthetic: the marriage of high and low culture that began with his upper-class Italian father and working-class Mexican mother.
The recent Rome Prize recipient took a few moments for a phone call with the Current, during which he turned a near-theft into an invitation to his upcoming book launch.
`Phone rings and someone picks up.`
Look at that, that’s I’m just admiring my painting, sorry.
It’s nice when you can admire your own painting.
Let me go somewhere where I can talk. `off phone`: See you guys later. Thank you. Ann, nice meeting you, thank you again. `back on phone`: Hello.
You’re back and settled in?
I’m on the streets of New York, but I can talk.
Lucky you. How’s the weather?
Gorgeous day, gorgeous.
I want to do a little interview with you about High Pink.
I find the book very moving; I get a little choked up when I’m reading it. Did you expect people to react that way?
People from San Antonio, yes. They would laugh and then it would bring tears to their eyes. I was really in a state when I wrote that book. It was like a year or two ago, I was in my early 40s, and finally putting all those issues that had been pent up in me to bed. The book has been described as part memoir, part rant, part stand-up act, and the rant part is so true. Those were all my stories `from` when I would get into political diatribes in San Antonio, but I finally found a way to express them that was moving and funny.
|A sculpture accompanying “Mojado (Wetback),” an entry in High Pink.
When you say that you finally got it off your chest, do you feel different now? Has your art changed?
I think San Antonio has changed for the better, so in a way that very specific immediate need I had is not as dramatic. But the things in that book that irked me, cultural bias and cultures misunderstanding each other, inequality, they still exist. So, has my art changed much? Only that I’ve realized that this way of expressing it is effective, so my paintings have become more like what you see in the book, little humorous one-liner vignettes that get my point across.
It’s kind of like lawyering, finding the zinger that sums up your case. Exactly. You know I’m a lawyer, right? It’s anecdotal. That’s really the way I like to communicate things: short and sweet. So I think that does come from my lawyer background.
Tell me about quitting the law and practicing art full-time.
I was a lawyer at the age of 24 and I worked for a really tough law firm. And I was kind of happy because everything was so new. I had a beautiful modern house, and nice clothes, and a prestigious job, a new car, and Texas was still booming. Remember that? So I was a real yuppie, I guess. But I would come home and I was just wrecked. AIDS was hitting San Antonio in those years and friends were getting sick, and I expressed myself in art, and I would oh my,
`Off phone`: That is my new book. I’m sorry, I left it on the ledge. I’m having a book launch at Bergdorf Goodman on December 13. No, I should, I need to get a handbill done. There’s going to be two bars, there’s going to be hilarious food — there’s lots of food in this book — huh? Yeah, open to the public. Give me your card and I’ll make sure you’re e-vited.
`back on phone`: Anyway, sorry about that.
You’re having a New York moment.
It’s very New York. `off phone`: Thank you. Thank you. `on phone` People love it. New York loves it.
To make a long story short, I was a busy lawyer, but I would come home and I would make art out of anything — toilet paper, whatever I had — I just had to express myself. And the work was kind of moving, very Catholic, and also my circle of friends outside of law was the artists, Alejandro Diaz, Rolando Briseño, and Sandra Cisneros, and Ito Romo. I was so envious of their lives. I had money and the nice house, but they had so much freedom. So I started making work, and the artists would come to my house and they liked it. And my big break came when Dave Hickey — I didn’t know who that was at the time — `off phone`: Thank you, I’ll see you on the 13th. What a great name!
So Dave Hickey came
Dave Hickey came and put me in a show and things started snowballing, and before I knew it I was in the local shows. I felt like a dilettante, though, like, oh, here’s Alamo Heights lawyer who now thinks he’s an artist. So that was a hang-up I had for a while. And then I realized I couldn’t bear to be a lawyer anymore, but I couldn’t sell my house for even what I owed on it, because the boom had busted, real-estate deflated, so I was economically trapped in my lifestyle. So I quit being a lawyer. I wasn’t that great at it I don’t think; I didn’t love it.
What kind of law were you practicing?
Corporate and real estate and I worked for an old firm. And then I had a very nice job at USAA, a very, very structured corporate environment. But I had to get out, and eventually the house appreciated again, so as soon as I could I sold it and paid my bills and I started a new life, and lived in Mexico City for about a half a year, and then came back to San Antonio with a little bit of money left in savings and that’s when I did the `Infinito` Botanica.
One of the stories I love is the one in which you talk about dating a Mexican prince (a wealthy Mexican national) as a rite of passage for Latino gay men. In the book you often name people, and your insights, it seems, might be hard for people to read about themselves.
Most of the names are not real, they’ve been changed. The stories about my mother and my dad are pretty tough, and I bounced them off of them and got their permission kind of. I think though some people are gonna recognize themselves in these stories. When I wrote these stories I had no intention it was going to be a book; I just had to write these stories down. So we changed some of the names and I got permission from some of the people whose names we do use. So I hope it’s gonna be OK.
The back of the book says you live in New York, but you told me you’re actually going to be moving around for a while. Where do you feel most at home?
San Antonio. Oh my god, I love it. But my kind of career is all about being in New York. And I love New York, and it’s been great to me, but I dream about San Antonio still, I love it. But that’s not where my life is taking me right now, I’ve got to be on the road. But I have a dream that I’m going to go back to stay and have a little farm — I think I told you once, I want a crooked house with chickens, and I’ll be very happy. But I think I’m going to wait ’til my 50s to settle down in San Antonio.
You know what? I started making art for the same reason I wrote this book: There was something in me that I couldn’t control. I wrote this book in a month and it was all I could think about. The stories just rolled off my tongue. That’s kind of what I did with visual art; I would ruin my Hugo Boss suits. I would come home, and I wouldn’t even change my clothes and I’d start making art and I’d look down and realize I’d just ruined a $600 suit.
You were subconsciously trying to ruin your lawyer suits.
That’s what I was doing I guess; yes, that’s very good. I should have saved that suit.
|The image accompanying “Vienna Waltz,” a tale about the culture clash between the artists’ parents.
How long were you trapped in your lawyer’s life after Dave Hickey “discovered” you?
That would have been about four or five years.
That’s a long time.
And I had no idea how I could make it as an artist, either, I just knew I was unhappy and I wanted to be free. It’s not that I was rich, I just really broke even and started my life all over again. I didn’t even have anywhere to live for a while. When I came to New York I had to live on Alejandro’s `Diaz` couch. I just rolled the dice.
That’s a pretty good couch to land on. In the intro to High Pink, Sandra `Cisneros` talks about the incredible, creative, over-the-top parties you used to host at your house and then at Infinito. Do you miss those days?
One — by the way — that was art that I was making, and didn’t realize it, and I think people should just follow their passions. I was throwing parties, and those were happenings and I didn’t even know what a happening was at that point. I would decorate, and the food, and the mix of people that I would do, that was the art that I was making and that I’m still doing today. I kind of sharpened my skills those years at the Botanica.
Anyway, do I miss those years? Yes, oh my god, what happened? But you know it happened everywhere, all cities. There was this kind of arty, underground, I don’t know what it was, but it was so creative — yes, I miss it terribly.
The art world seems to be much more sober and business-like these days.
Yes. What happened, and what we all have to do, every event has to be corporate-sponsored. It almost seems like corporations have become the citizens of cities. Like, I’m having a party, but Bergdorf is throwing me the party and Skyy Vodka is one of the hosts, that kind of thing. So people have been replaced by corporations and it changes the freedom you have. Those parties and that energy where you could just do anything in San Antonio was really needed and it was really fresh. It was a generation of people really starting to adjust and come in contact with their identity, with our identity, our mixed-race identity, both the Latino and Anglo community.
How did the Rome Prize change your life?
It’s gonna be a few months before it all falls into place. The Rome Prize changed my life in the sense that it reminded me one more time, all these things I dream of happening, eventually do happen and I go, Is that all that is? Because I always thought, Oh, my god, I went to St. Mary’s Law School, I’m a local yokel, and these kids had all gone to Harvard or Yale. But the Rome Prize gave me a taste of East Coast academia, because it was all these Harvard and Yale kids.
How did it taste?
Dumb! `Laughs.` I can’t say that they’re dumb, that’s ridiculous, but I just thought, Oh my god, that circle I hung around with in San Antonio was very enlightened about cultural issues and at the American Academy in Rome I was with a lot of people who still had very Western civilization-dominant models of culture.
| High Pink: Tex-Mex Fairytales
By Franco Mondini-Ruiz
Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.
$20, 126 pages
It was! How did it change my life? I realized that my art sold in Europe, which was a big relief. I thought the Europeans were just going to laugh at my sculptures and you know what, they did laugh at them, but at least they bought them. It was very affirming, I’m very humbly thankful. They spoiled us rotten. But it did remind me, that even in these very off-beat academic circles there was a lot of plain old San Antonio common-sense and manners that was needed. I had to teach the girls how to take a compliment. If I said, Oh, you look great today, they’d go, no I don’t, I look horrible today. So I’d go, Let’s readdress this, you know? It wasn’t warm at first, it wasn’t like being at home. So, I gave it a little bit of South Texas flavor. You know I did a party, an art show, called Frito Pie at the American Academy in Rome, that was my installation. It was the most expensive Frito Pie ever made, to get the ingredients in Rome was just crazy. I made this huge batch of Frito Pie for about 500 people, and I had all of the Rome intelligentsia and art community there. And some of them just loved it, but some of them were terrified of it. So I had to rename it Polenta a la Azteca, and they loved it because it had an Italian name.
And I made very dear friends. We ended up all having a great time. A couple of poets have been writing poetry based on my paintings, and one guy composed an opera, a little opera, based on one of the paintings — a lot of collaborating. It wasn’t just artists; it was scholars, composers, poets, and other artists.
That level of collaboration doesn’t happen with all artists. Is there something about you that invites or encourages that?
Definitely. Because you know I’m an outsider. Most of the artists there have arts degrees, and I’m educated, but as a lawyer. So I’m basically an outsider, so I didn’t have all the pressure of an applied academic background. So what at one point was a disadvantage really became an advantage at this point in my life. So it’s threatening to my peers, sometimes, to think outside the box — but we learn things when we do that. I have nothing to lose, so I took a lot of chances that might have seemed uncool or irreverent. •
By Elaine Wolff