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Arts & Culture

Franco Mondini-Ruiz: Bluebonnets and camp

Photo: Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Josh Huskin

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Franco Mondini-Ruiz, Almost an Onderdonk

There is a 1990 painting of yours in "¡Queers, Presente!," the current show at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. It is a retablo-like triptych. Since then you have explored a number of painting and sculpture styles that some have described as faux-naïf. Is that term accurate?

No, I wouldn't say faux — they are sincere. What I usually do is I paint paintings, and I sculpt sculptures that already exist. I am recreating things, so I am not painting fake retablos. At the time [the height of the AIDS crisis] I was very earnest — my friends were dying all around me. Those weren't faux, those were real altars, which was my coping mechanism for dealing with all the suffering that was around me.

This particular altar is painted on a vinyl siding display case. We've talked about rasquachismo — using available, often cast-off or crude materials as a class statement in making high art. Is it a queer tactic, too?

It belongs to everyone. But there is a very important overlap between — not kitsch, but camp — and rasquachismo. Camp belongs to all cultures too, but it happens to be something that has been a survival mechanism for gay culture. When I got my feathers ruffled when you said 'faux,' if I were making faux retablos, that's kitsch. I don't make kitsch, even though that's what the internet says. I make camp. I believe in what I am making.

Can you elaborate on the overlap between camp and rasquaschismo?

You just make due with what you have. If you weren't born a woman, like a drag queen will do, you turn a pair of tube socks into boobs. That's rasquaschismo. Camp belongs to everyone, too. I think most human endeavors are shared between the sexes. Everyone says, 'Gay men have such good taste.' No! But all gay men — for the most part — think they have good taste. That's what's fascinating. But what people call 'good taste,' is shared among all peoples, so is camp, rhythm, whatever. ... Rasquashismo, we have to watch out, it sounds like Mexican people invented it.

You also have a solo show "Almost an Onderdonk," up now at the Institute of Texan Cultures. Why Texas landscape painting?

People are interested beauty, history, authenticity — you mix it up and bluebonnet paintings are a good metaphor for that. But these paintings, it's adding a bit of irreverence to something that has been so overly revered that seems to be associated with dominant white culture.

You mentioned that you read about the Onderdonks in a book you picked up at the Witte Museum. What did you learn?

His story is interesting. Julian Onderdonk used a fake Mexican name to come across as a naive Mexican painter. He used to market his work in New York under José Hernández so he would be on par with [Porfirio] Salinas and [José] Arpa — though Arpa was a fancy Spanish painter. When he was a young man, Onderdonk went to New York and studied under William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist, who between you, me, and the lamp post, I think had a crush on him. But back in Texas, it was slim pickings.

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