In­die cu­ra­tor José Ruiz show­cases Rockville’s art com­mu­nity

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHELE LANGEVINE LEIBY

José Ruiz is a sought-af­ter cu­ra­tor on the D.C. and New York art scenes, ad­mired for his in­die sen­si­bil­ity, eye for emerg­ing tal­ent, and ef­forts to make ex­hi­bi­tions less in­tim­i­dat­ing. “Even if it’s free, a lot of peo­ple don’t want to walk into a gallery or mu­seum be­cause they feel they don’t have the ed­u­ca­tion to go in. Or they feel like you have to buy some­thing,” he says. His goal: “to re­ally open the doors” and draw in the com­mu­nity, says Ruiz, who has cu­rated more than 100 shows.

Born in Peru and partly raised in Brazil, Ruiz moved with his par­ents to Mont­gomery County, Md., when he was 9. He planned to join Peru’s diplo­matic corps be­fore de­cid­ing to change his ma­jor from in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions to stu­dio art in his fi­nal year at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land. He earned his MFA from the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute. His lat­est project, “Lo­cal Leg­ends,” at the VisArts cen­ter in Rockville, rep­re­sents a homecoming of sorts: He re­mem­bers ex­plor­ing Rockville as a skate­boarder and mak­ing art in high school there.

To­day Ruiz, 41, di­vides his time be­tween Brook­lyn, where he is co-di­rec­tor of a cu­ra­to­rial col­lec­tive, and Bal­ti­more, where he is a pro­fes­sor at Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art. The new ex­hi­bi­tion, draw­ing on eight artists with lo­cal ties, ranges from a video about an ec­cen­tric lo­cal per­former who goes by “T.V. John,” to wall­pa­per show­ing F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s grave, to blank checks on which vis­i­tors are asked to make a repa­ra­tions pay­ment for slav­ery. It runs through June 11.

Q: What were your be­gin­nings in art?

A: My par­ents would take me to mu­se­ums as much as pos­si­ble. I re­mem­ber times in my life when I was learn­ing new lan­guages. I couldn’t speak a lan­guage, but I was able to look at art and try to un­der­stand. I would try to cre­ate mean­ing from these works. Q: And your first ex­hi­bi­tions?

A: When I was a se­nior at Mary­land, my friends and I were or­ga­niz­ing shows in D.C. in mu­sic venues like the Black Cat, Metro Cafe, Vel­vet Lounge. I opened up an art space in 2000 around the cor­ner from 9:30 Club and Howard called De­catur Blue. We had that for al­most four years.

I was a young artist. We didn’t want to wait. We didn’t want to get per­mis­sion to be in a show.

Q: What is your cu­ra­to­rial aes­thetic?

A: I’ve had the plea­sure to have worked with es­tab­lished artists in New York, peo­ple who have been in Whit­ney Bi­en­ni­als and Venice Bi­en­nales, but I’m al­ways look­ing for emerg­ing and even pre-emerg­ing artists. There are some younger artists in this [VisArts] show, not by age but by where they are in their ca­reer. And it re­minds me of when I was younger, those mo­ments of mini break throughs.

Q: What has char­ac­ter­ized your own work through the years?

A: Latin Amer­i­can iden­tity, my per­sonal back­ground. But also cou­pling that with the way we look at la­bor in the U.S., es­pe­cially when you think of im­mi­grant or Latino com­mu­ni­ties. And also ideas of au­thor­ship and who gets the credit for cul­tural work. I grav­i­tate more to­ward places that are not on the map. I’ve done work in Cen­tral Amer­ica ver­sus, say, Paris. I’m more in­ter­ested in these mini epi­cen­ters that are sort of bub­bling with cul­ture and ideas that don’t get the sup­port or at­ten­tion.

Q: Is that your goal with “Lo­cal Leg­ends”?

A: All the artists were able to main­tain their voice and fol­low the line of think­ing they were al­ready do­ing in their prac­tice, and just made an in­ter­sec­tion with this idea of Rockville. If I brought artists from New York, there would be a dis­con­nect. VisArts is a great space. But who goes there? The peo­ple from the par­tic­i­pant or­ga­ni­za­tion go there. The peo­ple from Rockville go there.

Q: Where did the premise come from?

A: Rockville be­ing a sub­ur­ban place, peo­ple as­sume not much hap­pens there. For this show, we put to­gether a lit­tle re­search team. I asked: Can we find re­ally in­ter­est­ing sto­ries that hap­pened in Rockville? And then could we give this archival story to the artist and see if they could find mean­ing from it?

Q: An ar­ti­cle once de­scribed you as a rogue in the art world. And now?

A: Maybe a lit­tle bit. When I was younger I used to be more, I wouldn’t say con­fronta­tional, but I def­i­nitely had a point of view about the way the sys­tem worked in that it was very hi­er­ar­chi­cal — whether it was com­mer­cial gal­leries or mu­se­ums. I do like to try new things. So maybe not rogue by in­tent; it’s more that I can’t set­tle down in one thing for too long. I like to keep things mov­ing.

Lo­cal Leg­ends, through June 11 at Ka­plan Gallery VisArts Cen­ter, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. vis­arts­cen­ter.org.

ART­WORK COUR­TESY OF RAUL ZAHIR DE LEON

ABOVE: A still from a video from the ex­hi­bi­tion “Lo­cal Leg­ends” at VisArts. The work is ti­tled “Bound for Dust,” by Raul Zahir De Leon. BE­LOW: José Ruiz.

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