At one point as a young artist, Rubén Ortiz-Torres found himself in a Mexican cemetery watching kids play soccer with a human skull. He noticed one of the kids wearing a T-shirt of the band The Clash, so he pulled him aside and photographed him standing in front of a traditional Mexican grave adorned with marigolds, the now-cracked skull and an old wooden cross.
The juxtaposition of the real-life skull and the graphic skull on the T-shirt reflects the larger historic movement toward globalization and change going on at the time.
Ortiz-Torres later discovered that National Geographic photographers had been shooting that very same scene, only they were hidden and relying on telephoto lenses, so as not to interfere.
“At that moment,” Ortiz-Torres recalls, sitting on a bench amid his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man exhibition currently hanging at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), “I realized that I wasn’t a good photojournalist, because I was involved with these guys and directing instead of just observing. I realized I wasn’t interested in documenting a culture or a subculture; I wanted to make it. So here, in a way, I was supposed to document this movement, but I wanted to help invent the thing.”
There’s a clear thread between Ortiz-Torres’ older “MexiPunx” works in the SDMA show and his newer “The Past is Not What it Used to Be” photographic series picturing pyramids and other ancient iconography alongside a visibly changing landscape. The latter will be on view at the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair at the Hilton Downtown this week. The artist has an eye for those ostensibly awkward moments when cultural traditions meet modernization.
“I suppose these photographs show us these contradictions that I also see in a lot of the work that I do up to this day,” Ortiz-Torres says, standing in front of “La Última Cena” (The Last Supper), a photo of a young punk couple sitting in an old Mexican restaurant with a cheap knockoff of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” hanging behind them. “There are these two systems that are clashing with each other. There are these different aesthetic systems, iconographies and symbolism that collide. The couple’s aesthetics are somewhere, and yet the place is somewhere else entirely.”
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is a thoughtful survey of Ortiz-Torres’ works from 1984 to 1990. Ninety percent of the work has never been shown before, and some of the photos in the show were printed for the first time. The exhibition depicts the beginnings of punk culture in Mexico City, which Ortiz-Torres says was started by middle-class Mexican kids who traveled abroad and brought back punk-rock aesthetics and ideals. Only later did it catch on with working-class kids.
Already a bit of an anarchist by the 1980s, a young Ortiz- Torres found himself naturally drawn to punk, even if he didn’t know exactly what it was. He and his friends started a punk band, but because youth culture was somewhat repressed in Mexico City after the tumultuous ’60s (big public rock concerts weren’t allowed, and radio didn’t cater to youth), the sound of his first band was a lot closer to the blues than punk.
“I was put in the band more for my aesthetics than my actual musical abilities,” Ortiz-Torres laughs.
His insider status, though, helped him capture intimate scenes that not many other working photographers at the time could or would touch.
Amy Glapin, SDMA project curator for American art, says she sort of stumbled onto Ortiz-Torres’ old work and immediately saw the potential for a show.
“I think there’s been a resurgence in the last decade of the effects of punk culture on contemporary artists,” Glapin said. “So, I thought that would be interesting to tease out a little bit.
“But, collectively, the show is a portrait of an artist who’s kind of figuring out that he’s an artist,” Glapin continued. “It’s the formulation of an identity of someone who eventually became an internationally known artist.”
Ortiz-Torres, a professor in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, was awarded the 2011 San Diego Art Prize earlier this year. He’s represented by a top-tier art gallery in Mexico City and and was recently asked to curate a show at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach as part of Pacific Standard Time, a Getty Museum initiative focusing on postwar art in Los Angeles. From his punk beginnings, he’s succeeded as an artist, and, in fact, so have several of his roguish-looking friends depicted in the photos.
“Half of the people who appear in these photographs are very interesting people who do interesting things,” Ortiz-Torres said. “The other half are people who just got totally lost.”
“Como T.V.,” a video Ortiz-Torres created as a young man with the help of friend Emanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (a now-famous cinematographer whose most recent work was in The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick), is perhaps the star of the SDMA show. It’s a beautiful piece of lo-fi video art created before the tools for making video art existed. The two recorded images from the news with a Betamax machine, then saturated the colors and degenerated the quality by reshooting it with a video camera. They finished it by filming it with Super 8 and stylizing the piece by etching and painting directly on the film. For the show, the film has been returned to video, which creates unique textures that can’t really be replicated.
“These images still resonate,” Ortiz-Torres says as a fuzzy Ronald Reagan and shots of malnourished Ethiopian children flicker across the screen. “Now there are digital programs that emulate this texture, but this is the real thing.”
Rubén Ortiz-Torres’ older work will be on view at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park through Nov. 6. His newer works will be showing at Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair in the San Diego Visual Arts Network's booth No. 11 at the Hilton (1 Park Blvd., Downtown) from Sept. 1 through Sept. 4.