The Witty World of Franco Mondini-Ruiz

A Quick Biographical Rundown

Franco Mondini-Ruiz was born in 1961. He grew up in conservative, white Boerne, Texas. His father is a rakish and artistic immigrant from Italy who grew up during the Mussolini regime. His mother is Mexican-American and the daughter of a severe Spaniard, and she occasionally posed for Franco’s father’s paintings. Franco Mondini-Ruiz survived a devastating car accident on the way home from the Strawberry Festival in Poteet at age 6. His grandfather was killed in the crash. Franco Mondini-Ruiz grew up immersed in his family’s devout Catholicism, haunted by his father’s Fascist boyhood and flamboyant style, and navigating the complexities of assimilating into American mainstream culture while rebelling against it. Then came international art stardom, possibly the most bizarre plot twist of all.

As a result, Franco has mastered public identity as absurdist performance. He’s cerebral, quick and brave, containing multitudes and steeped in tragedy, like most truly funny people. He’s a strong gay man of color who is open about his HIV-positive status and past use of substances, an outspoken activist of social justice. But he admits to a cruel streak. When a friend gave him a tortilla as a 50th birthday present, Franco didn’t speak to him for five years. He tells this story with disarming candor, equal parts indignation and wry self-awareness. He was pissed about the tortilla, but the outsized punishment he meted out is even funnier. He’s faced racism and homophobia through the myriad macro- and micro-aggressions of art-world typecasting. He’s witnessed the bizarre money-grubbing antics of the capitalistic art market. His critique is an unapologetic street vendor mode — sometimes selling camp tokens of just those stereotypes, sometimes from an actual cart, at $10 or $15 a pop. Emphasis on pop.

He recently sold his large compound on San Antonio’s West Side, including a residence, many beautiful outdoor studio and sculptural structures, gardens, and an extensive art and furniture collection, and upon whose grounds he supported a small village’s worth of people. He currently resides in a large private suite in a downtown hotel, where he is immersed in painting and planning. He can turn on a dime. Franco Mondini-Ruiz has no formal training as an artist, incidentally. He is, however, a recovering attorney.

I learned some of these biographical particulars from Franco himself, some from his book of autobiographical art and short stories, High Pink (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2005), and some I learned from excellent video interviews by the Institute of Texan Cultures and by David Rubin, then at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Many other particulars, few will ever know.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz photographed by Marc Arevalo

Franco Mondini-Ruiz photographed by Marc Arevalo

A Bit of Historical Context

In the San Antonio of the mid-1990s, some young people, not quite artists yet, began to circulate tales of the Infinito Botánica, a glamorous and otherworldly art space, also a subversively affordable gift shop. It had overtaken an existing botánica on the bottom floor of a brick storefront on South Flores Street facing the old pecan-shelling sweatshops. When Franco Mondini-Ruiz purchased the property, he kept much of the remaining merchandise. Then sold it.

Infinito Botánica’s atmosphere, high-ceilinged and dark, smelled like wood, flowers and wax, and was as engulfing as a chapel. Suffering saints stared back at you from tin panels. Rows of tiny lit candles abutted bare-breasted papier-mâché muñecas who might lean suggestively against startling work by Jesse Amado, Anne Wallace, Dario Robleto, Alejandro Diaz (founder of Sala Diaz), and by Franco Mondini-Ruiz, the proprietor, curator and revolutionary grandee.

I met Franco Mondini-Ruiz at the Infinito Botánica when I was 25 years old. I was with a group of friends, mostly artists, now. We were absorbed by several sculptures from his “Modern Piñata” series, “real” piñatas formed by hand by masters of the craft, made for smashing like any piñata, but modeled on famous 20th-century postwar works of art. There was a Warhol tomato soup can and a Brillo box, a silver-spangled Koons bunny and a Jasper Johns American flag.

Their skins of feathery cut tissue paper made the piñatas fuzzy-looking and familiar. The composition and concept were smashing, though; Franco’s work swung a broom handle at the exalted objects of the contemporary art canon. These piñatas were like any great satire; the likeness sharp, the tweaked mimesis clear. A modest proposal made material. These were the first works I had ever seen of deliberate rasquache as a contemporary approach too, and my mind remains blown to this day.

“Do you know what those are?” Franco asked us.

Franco was kind and encouraging to a whole coterie of young artists, and he didn’t need to be. We couldn’t afford to buy anything except candles and postcards. We weren’t art writers or curators, we didn’t have any pull anywhere. But Franco would turn down the music, and get off the phone, put down his cup of coffee and tell us that San Antonio’s traditional culture was as valid and fruitful as Paris in the ’20s, and that we should all be working harder. There was exciting stuff happening; Alejandro Diaz had just founded Sala Diaz, artist-run spaces like The Wong Spot and Cabeza de Piedra were incubating new work and collaborations. Artpace was new and gaining steam, nationally and internationally.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz and Sandra Cisneros photographed by Elizabeth Ciarfeo at Infinito Botánica

Franco Mondini-Ruiz and Sandra Cisneros at Infinito Botánica

Franco was a bequeather of legacies too. He related how and why he made what he made, how and what he loved, who he read and listened to. He told stories of secret San Antonio gay clubs in the 19th century, and how the Conquest made cruelty glamorous. He would show you photographs in books of Balenciaga gowns or pre-Columbian architecture, connecting the dots with theory. He also looked at, critiqued, displayed and sold work by emerging young artists, giving many their first resume entries, their first exhibition launch pad to other spaces, other projects. Franco Mondini-Ruiz was and is a formative influence on many people, including me.

Franco and the late Chuck Ramirez, who lived in the baroque and fire-charred apartment above Infinito Botánica, threw mythic parties, and were generous with invitations. Sparkling chandeliers lit altar-like installations of pastries and fruit, there was Champagne and tequila, Edith Piaf or Grace Jones on the turntable, chic people of all sexes, and gorgeous young men everywhere. We poor artist-aspirants shuffled in wearing Chuck Taylors and T-shirts, awed. Franco greeted us like socialites, right alongside the actual socialites in couture and jewels who bought his larger works. Everybody danced together. Those parties were cinematic set pieces, floral, gorgeous, maximalist and disco, as though you’d never missed the Warhol Factory or Studio 54 or Frida’s house in Coyoacán at all. As the hour grew late, the hosts would gently encourage some of us to head on over to Tacoland or somewhere. The gorgeous young men, and often some of the socialites, waved us on, stayed behind, and closed the door.

Some Career Points, 1995-Present

In an artist statement from 2002, Franco Mondini-Ruiz wrote about his Infinito Botánica installation as “part of a social and figurative sculpture that mixed traditional botánica fare with [his] own sculpture and installations, as well as with the contemporary work of local cutting-edge and outsider artists, locally made craft, folk art, cultural artifacts and junk.”

Franco Mondini-Ruiz's Infinito Botánica installed at Artpace in 2006

Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botánica installed at Artpace in 2006

The concept evolved from the storefront era to moveable feast, though always with something for sale at reasonable prices, art pieces that anybody could afford. Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s hand-to-hand retail element is an homage, a performance and a strategy, both pragmatic and central to his philosophy. Maybe a punchline, but not a joke. (Note: On Sundays at Brick Marketplace, you can find him in this mode as an ongoing practice.)

Franco first staged his Infinito Botánica installation offsite at Artpace in 1996, where critic Frances Colpitt described it as “a fluid exchange of cultural objects — historical, ethnic, sexual and religious … elegant to behold, Infinito sets up a confluence of worlds mirroring one another into infinity.”

Franco’s career accelerated from there. He went on to stage versions and elaborations of the Botánica worldwide, including at the Whitney Biennial in 2000 where, he now muses, “I may have been the only artist to actually sell work.” He has exhibited Infinito Botánica installations, as well as paintings, delicate porcelain readymade confections and other mixed media, conceptual works and works on paper at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in St. Louis, the ARCO in Madrid, the Bologna Art Fair, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museo del Barrio, the Prague Biennale, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, the Frederieke Taylor Gallery and the David Shelton Gallery. His work has been reviewed in ArtNews, Paper magazine, USA Today, numerous Texas publications, several international publications, and by Ken Johnson and Roberta Smith for The New York Times. He’s been awarded grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and won the American Academy’s Rome Prize.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz's installation Giant at Ballroom Marfa in 2004

Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Giant installation at Ballroom Marfa in 2004

I lived in New York from 1999 through 2008, and once attended one of his openings in an au courant white box gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I expected him to be busy, thronged and unapproachable. He was busy, thronged, but gave me a big hug. He turned to the modish gallery owner and said, “We’re both San Antonio girls.”

Franco on Alejandro, and Franco on Franco: A Collaboration

One Friday night this November, I interviewed Franco Mondini-Ruiz for the first time. Two of his longtime friends joined us; Penelope Boyer, journalist, artist and Art-Sci Projects Director at the Land Heritage Institute, and Garrett Mormando, artist, designer, silver expert, and human rights activist. We holed up in a banquette at Ocho; Franco ordered cheeseburgers, churros and Champagne. I took notes as fast as I could. “There’s enough for a book,” Garrett said. “Ten books,” Penelope said. Both mused that Franco’s talent as a writer is considerable, and underrated.

As part of the catalog for Alejandro Diaz’s “It Takes a Village” exhibition at the Linda Pace Foundation’s SPACE gallery this past summer, Franco contributed a number of short story responses to his friend’s works. In these stories, Franco the writer emerges: his social acuity, his brisk poetics, his economy. In conversation, he’s more voluble, allusive, and his ideas proliferate and amass. Here are some of Franco’s written stories about Alejandro’s pieces, annotated by verbal ones. A kind of collage.

Make Your Own Damn Tortillas

Alejandro Diaz, Make Your Own Damn Tortillas

Alejandro Diaz, Make Your Own Damn Tortillas

For a brief moment in the 30s, San Antonio was a hotbed of a communism, headed by a dark-skinned Latina woman with too much lipstick and clad as an Aztec warrior princess. She was fighting for the survival of her fellow Latinas, which was based on the pennies made from extracting pecans from their shells … an exasperating, tedious task for even the most accepting of urban peasants. The pecan workers of San Antonio were allowed under a specific federal law to be the only workers in the U.S. paid less than minimum wage! The victory was short-lived as the thousands of workers were soon replaced by machines. They not only cost less to operate. They didn’t complain or eat pecans.

One of San Antonio’s thorniest problems, Franco tells me, is that our social hierarchy operates “based not on a 21st-century model, or a 20th-, or even a 19th-century model, but on an 18th-century colonial-era model.” In some realms of the regional psyche, the genocide of the indigenous is still happening, conquest has not diminished, and we persist in “other-izing” disenfranchised workers, particularly women, as quaint and picturesque and romantic, rather than according them labor rights.

“We haven’t progressed to a system of meritocracy from a system of aristocracy,” he says. The ruling class, devoid of functional titles, signify status via coded performance and ownership, Range Rovers and racism.

This system was internalized in his own extended family. “In my mother’s family, the lighter-skinned women worked at Joske’s … this was the publicly accepted work, the decorative and aspirational.”

Art, he believes, serves to spotlight and undermine social injustices. In this way, beauty and elegance should be made available and affordable to everybody, while more painful truths can be animated with “wit and absurdity, which is a form of elegance.”

He added, “Somebody should write a musical about Emma Tenayuca. They should call it Nuts!

He admonished me to add the exclamation point in my notes.

Ecce Homo

Alejandro Diaz, Ecce Homo

Alejandro Diaz, Ecce Homo

“Ecce homo” is the Latin phrase which translates into “Behold the man.” It is supposedly the words uttered by Pontius Pilate upon viewing the broken blood-soaked Jesus brought to him for judgment. Pilate refuses to judge. In Mexican tradition, a boy can often be named Jesus and in some circumstances Jesus y Maria (Jesus and Mary). Imagine a macho Mexican construction worker named Mary and no one judging him!

He was always smart. But it was at St. Mary’s School of Law, Franco says, that he sharpened his critical thinking and became skilled at logic-based argument. The study of law offered a formalized framework as a counterweight to the religious strictures of his childhood, which often felt arbitrary. Under his father’s moral system, filial duty and piety subsumed other considerations as a matter of religious fulfillment, making any argument a sin rather than a matter of reason. Any unwanted behavior could be judged as immoral.

“How can you enjoy yourself? Your grandmother died three years ago!” Franco growls.

In law school, Franco adopted “the reasonable man standard,” which is “about transactions between people, and the logic of cause and effect,” whereas, he argues “morality is a belief in God and some vague sense of divine fairness.”

Using legal logic helped him to overcome patriarchal morality, and start to self-determine his sexual expression, his politics, and “stop seeing the artist as fundamentally degraded.”

“I am amoral,” Franco asserts, then adds, “but I am ethical.”

Lost Our Lease

Alejandro Diaz, Lost Our Lease

Alejandro Diaz, Lost Our Lease

Two struggling artist/roommates are walking down a Brooklyn street. One notices a display in the pet shop window featuring Betta fish in tiny bowls for a dollar.

“Maybe a pet fish would cheer us up … you know, a little life and color!”

“No way,” the roommate defeatedly shrugged. “Just another mouth to feed.”

Recovering from an illness this spring, during which he missed the opening to a New York exhibition, Franco decided to rededicate his resources. “I’m a workaholic and a worrywart,” he admits, and he was directing his work energy toward an untenable ongoing project. His West Side dream factory was awash in young men hired for odd jobs, and was leaking Franco’s money and energy. “It was not cowboys and Indians, exactly, since I’m not really a cowboy and not quite an Indian. I’m a fat Spanish friar in an 18th-century mission! I was bribing the natives with alcohol and sugar, and the Comanches were stealing from me!”

It’s funny because it’s true, his tone suggests.

“I spent my resources subsidizing people. I must have bought 10 leaf blowers, and I never saw one out of its box. I was the colonizing priest, trying to enslave them, convert them; in some way bettering humanity.”

He shakes his head and examines his churro. “But the Indians are still in possession of culture, and the codes you try to impose don’t change their codes. There is nothing new under the sun.”

Nowadays, ensconced in his hotel suite, unencumbered by his missionary work, he’s “back to painting, making money, and staying out of trouble.”

No more “sexual-addiction glamorous social playboy” scenarios, he avows; he adds that his current regimen of medication “has erased 99 percent of my sex drive, and I love it.”

The Color Field

Alejandro Diaz, The Color Field

Alejandro Diaz, The Color Field

In the early ’70s there was a type of confident Tex-Mex girl with long shiny black hair who considered herself no different than Jan Brady on ‘The Brady Bunch.’ This type of girl could often be seen playing the guitar in folk masses in modern post-Vatican II churches. Some of them even had cars. In many cases this type of girl was known to be quite adept at making superior tissue Mexican flowers.

Franco often admonishes younger artists of color that “the starving artist is not an industry, it’s a lifestyle choice.” Among the goals of the artist should be financial empowerment, both for practical reasons, in order to flourish, and for ethical reasons, in order to provide a creative role model in opposition to the damaging popular notion that artists, particularly artists who are queer, female, or of color, are fundamentally unable to make a living.

The art world does not make this easy, he knows.

“If you decide to engage in the industry of art, play by the rules of supply and demand. If what you want to be is a museum commodity, that’s not very profitable. That system is abusive, in that it’s not capitalized. It shouldn’t be threatening to say, ‘I want to make money. I want a swimming pool too.’”

The Village People

Alejandro Diaz, The Village People

Alejandro Diaz, The Village People

Anybody who was anybody in 1980s gay San Antonio society would start the wee hours of every Sunday frolicking at the glamorous mansion turned disco … the Bonham Exchange. Only a few steps from the colonial chapel that would eventually be known as the Alamo, a pilgrimage of pleasure seekers dressed in their Saturday night best would line up to enter a Fellini-esque world of prayers answered. There would be appearances not of saints but of the likes of Blondie, Grace Jones, maybe even the Village People. Young men who were born on the wrong side of town would miraculously be able to speak in British accents or recall past lives in ancient Alexandria.

Franco Mondini-Ruiz has a powerful respect for social media and digital culture. It also amuses him. “All these images and emoticons; we’re returning to hieroglyphics.”

Business-wise, he’s taking creative advantage. “In 15 years, social media will make galleries obsolete,” he says, chirpily. Using Facebook as a marketing springboard, he’s able to maintain market demand by posting photos of himself, his portrait subjects, and the resulting portraits as an element of performance, a comeuppance to an art industry that “still thinks that the only good gay artist is a dead gay artist.”

However, he says, there’s something to be said for the interactions of the pre-digital age, in-person-only social gatherings, uninterrupted conversations. “Tradition forms in a particular way,” he says, then relates that at the age of 8, he saw a photograph in Weekly Reader magazine of Andy Warhol at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Even at 8, he knew “this is all out there, somewhere … it just grew and grew in my imagination” until he was able to find people with whom to emulate it. By then, he was indomitable. He had conceptual practice.

Andy Warhol photographed at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966

Andy Warhol photographed at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966

Now that young people can find like-minded friends online, “and they can Google any artist they hear about,” he wonders if something isn’t lost. If you
find the Warhol at Castelli image on Pinterest amid 70 similar ones, how special can it be?

He had shared traditions and stories and bits of culture that he had picked up over a lifetime; some bits of knowledge had been passed down to him from older gay men too. “The kinds of communication that can’t be conveyed by a website.”

Garrett Mormando nods, says of the pre-digital era “that stretch of time was magic, all these vignettes.”

Penny Boyer recalls meeting Franco at “The Fat Show” in July of 1993, which featured work by Franco, Tommy Glassford, Alejandro Diaz, Jesse Amado, and a big wall of manteca oozing in an un-air-conditioned gallery. She was just in town from Washington, D.C., visiting her then-partner, a San Antonian. She had joked before about “packing my bags and moving to Texas,” but Franco and “The Fat Show,” the social antics and eccentricity of art and artists here struck her as so bizarre, and so funny, that she felt compelled to actually move here.

Garrett rhapsodizes, “Franco is a bruja or a fairy godmother; he can make you into a prince or a princess.”

“Wouldn’t that be a warlock?” Franco huffs. Then laughs. “Or a wizard?”

He motions to the waiter with his Champagne glass, intoning, Gandalf-like, “Take this swill away!”

This article was updated to clarify information about Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s father, who is “still alive and kicking in the Mondini ancestral village of Bracciano, Italy.”


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