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Arts & Culture

Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney Interviews Cruz Ortiz

Photo: Joaquin Moreno-Ortiz, License: N/A

Joaquin Moreno-Ortiz

No Absolut bottles were harmed (or even opened) in the making of this photo


Cruz Ortiz is known by many as the art teacher at Lee High School, a job he has held for the past 10 years. To the San Antonio art scene, however, he's a wild and outrageous presence whose intercultural word pieces (Soy un Boring Lover) have entertained us since his breakout Artpace residency in 2005. And his art career, these days, is on fire. He was recently commissioned to design an Absolut Vodka bottle; an honor bestowed on only a select few. He also installed one of his signature comic figure environments for a music venue at SXSW in Austin last month. He's a busy guy. We talked with him at his Southtown "compound," which includes several studios and an old railroad station.

Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

Yep—when I was five years old at Holy Name in Houston; we did a really cool project where we melted crayons to make these cool drawings on fabric. I made a pillowcase—after that I was sold.

Would you consider your work in the family of Outsider Art?

Outsider Art—that’s funny—seems like a trap the Insider Art people came up with.

How would you describe your work? Are there themes running through it?

My attention span doesn’t allow me to be nailed down to a certain type of art—I think I might be a scientist—just researching and coming up with solutions to problems.

What do you consider to be your biggest strength as an artist?

Strength—work—it’s like the new Britney Spears song.

Who have been your biggest influences?

I have a really long list of influences; in fact the list gets shifted around a bit, depending on where I’m at in my life or what the tasks are gnawing at my ankles. So Joseph Beuys, The Smiths, Helen Frankenthaler, José Guadalupe Posada, Richard Tuttle, Sue Coe, Esteban Jordan, Ana Mendieta, Félix González-Torres, love the stuff Santiago Sierra does, Mexican sign painters, Fugazi, Rodchenko, Sunny Ozuna and the Sunliners, Alice Neel and, of course, George Strait.

A few times I’ve made artwork that I’ve deliberately wanted to look raw and unfiltered and I found it was an effort to keep it from looking polished. Do you ever find yourself having to dial back your efforts to keep it looking fresh?

I don’t think about that too much. There have been times that things look too clean, but it wasn’t that I needed to make it more raw or unfiltered. It just meant maybe I should think about what I really want to convey, so then I go at it again and then it ends up looking raw. I concentrate on more of the immediacy of my work. I want to convey a sense of urgency; there’s a lot of work to be done.

How were you approached to design an Absolut Vodka bottle?

It’s been a really interesting process. A design agency, Guerilla Suit, called me up and said that they had been approached by Absolut to produce a new bottle for their city series—but this one was for the entire state of Texas. So GS essentially put together a bunch of Texas-based artists on some fake bottles and the folks at Absolut gravitated towards mine.

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