Indie curator José Ruiz showcases Rockville’s art community
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.
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.