By PAUL LASTER March, 2022
One of the most conversant and venturesome contemporary artists making work today, Cruz Ortiz may be far from the center of the art world in San Antonio, but he continuously has his finger on its aesthetic pulse. Interested in art since childhood, he overcame hardship and exclusion in order to passionately pursue it.
Equally influenced by his Mexican, European and Native American heritage, Ortiz creates art from what he sees, what he knows and what he’s learning. Starting out as a sculptor and printmaker in the early 2000s, he taught himself to paint by studying the work of artists who he admires and through years of dedicated persistence and determined experimentation.
Blurring the boundary between figuration and abstraction, Ortiz paints playful portraits of family, friends and activists who are meaningful to his life and causes. Inspired by a wide reach of art history, folklore, nature and music, Ortiz paints with a sense of urgency while poetically portraying his subjects from live sittings, together with his point-and-shoot photos, sketches and written remembrances of them.
A mix of direct observations and dreamscapes, his paintings, sculptures and works on paper require both reflective thought and inventive ideas. Whether he’s paying homage to a public figure or recalling relationships formed over years, the truth-seeking artist spends hours researching, observing and thinking about his subjects before bringing these musings to life through his art.
His second solo show at Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art, “Los Jardines,” covers a variety of approaches in his artistic practice, including several paintings and drawings of his wife and muse Olivia—both stylishly dressed and nude—and several self-portraits that were made during the pandemic, when what was at hand was what he lovingly embraced.
The large-scale painting Olivia Mujer In A Blue Dress (2022) captures his wife in an updated John Singer Sargent pose. With cell phone in hand, she’s seen stepping out of a cosmic realm. The wave rippling through the background references the White Shaman mural, one of the earliest known pictorial creation narratives in North America. Putting her in a place that represents the origin of Native American life, Ortiz portrays Olivia as his strong, stylish soulmate—a viewpoint that could also be seen, or read, as a reflection of himself.
The artist’s similarly sized, 2022 self-portraits, Soy Half Muerto (I’m Half Dead) and Tres soles con you on my mind (Three suns with you on my mind), are the perfect pictorial partners to the cosmic painting of his wife. The former, which is titled after a melancholic song by the English rock band The Smiths, portrays Ortiz as he saw himself in a mirror. He’s stopping time. His persona is coming out of the shadows of the new moon and into the light. The third eye is the inner eye of the ancestors and the plant becomes a prism to transforms the light.
Tres soles con you on my mind, which was one of the first paintings he made for the show, was developed from memories. Without an outcome in mind, the stream-of-consciousness canvas came to life before the artist’s eyes—as if guided by the gods. The stars reference Native American iconography from West Texas rock art and the letters spell out the words Te Amo, which translates from Spanish as Love You. The roughly painted background in Soy Half Muerto references his fondness for the paintings of Susan Rothenberg, while the jagged abstract forms in many of his canvases reflect his admiration for Amy Sillman’s art.
Ortiz’s largest painting in the show, Auto Retrato Nepantla Triptych (Self Portrait Nepantla Triptych), from 2022, depicts three mirrored images of the artist—caught at different times in the making of the contemplative work. After years of seeing himself through alter egos, the artist looks into the mirror to depict his Nepantla self—a person living between traditional and contemporary worlds, between Spanish and English, between cultures with traditional and shifting identities. The abstract forms that surround him become mountains in an imaginary, West Texas landscape. With a nod to Francis Bacon—another artist that Ortiz admires—the triptych portrays a man in motion, an artist facing his destiny head-on.
Several paintings of friends are pictured in comparable ways. The large-scale canvases Melissa at the Emily Morgan, Bernadette at Liberty Bar and Karina and Joe at Mixtli (all 2022) represent people close to Ortiz and his wife. Painted with the directness and immediacy of a definitive Alice Neel portrait, they take the artist’s simple point-and-shoot photos into new, multi-dimensional fields.
Melissa reclines—two drinks in hand—as she anxiously waits to attend a festive societal event at the nearby Alamo, yet the curving line of the curtain and the stars on the floor trace the Latinx lady’s roots back to the native rock art, transporting Melissa to a time and place much further in the past.
Quite differently, the background spaces of the other two portraits of friends cast the figures in more angular orbits. Bernadette floats in the cosmic space of her own dreams as she cozies up to the bar to engage in some banter, while Karina and Joe take a break on a club sofa as she attends to her phone and he falls deep into thought in a shifting, geometrically defined, multicolored room.
Large-scale portraits of the artist’s brother posing amongst giant white flowers from an Instagram image; a mariachi player standing on an abstract stage; labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez wrongly being punished in jail; and a series of smaller scaled portraits of Olivia nude (painted in various sites during the pandemic) and framed sketches, letters and notes round out the two-dimensional aspects of the show.
In the three-dimensional sphere, a handmade chess set, a sculptural painting and a folding, geometric, tabletop object fill out the expansive gallery space to make an exhibition that’s experimental, engaging, enigmatic and smart—all that one could want from art, and more. WM
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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