San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz believes he may have missed his calling. “I shouldʼve been a honky-tonk singer,” he says. But because he canʼt croon like a conjunto or country music star, Ortiz more than compensates by deploying a broad range of media—prints, paintings, sculptures, video, installation, and performance—to speak about life, love, and the struggle for equality. In Perspectives 170: Cruz Ortiz, the artistʼs first in-depth museum exhibition and catalogue, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston will present a selection of works from these categories.
To help him navigate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Ortiz has created an alter ego: the Spaztek, a post-Chicano, post-punk antihero. Part Aztek, part spazz, and part spaceman (think of Erich von Dänikenʼs Chariots of the Gods? and the sci-fi premise that the ancient Mesoamericans communed with aliens), the Spaztek is a holy fool and a noble savage who throws himself into a Quixotic quest for romance and self realization. Among the humorous, oftentimes rattletrap devices Ortiz uses to enable the Spaztek to express human yearnings for companionship and communal action are “balladic broadsides, transient architecture, life-size flying contraptions, megaphones, pushcarts, rockets, maps, banners and flags, siege machines.”
On the CAMHʼs front lawn, Ortiz will construct a siege tower, a mobile structure used for scaling castle walls. This tower, like many of the artistʼs constructions, will be repurposed from military to peacetime uses. It will become a multifunctional platform from which the artist may distribute silkscreen posters, music, or broadcasts from a low-power radio station. Recalling the decorated, information-disseminating agitprop trains used in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution to enlighten the population with “agitation” and “propaganda,” the siege tower will be an important center for the Spaztekʼs campaign to spread understanding and good will. The CAMHʼs downstairs Zilkha Gallery will feature a tent city inspired by Ortizʼs students at the San Antonio high school where he teaches art, many of whom grew up in similar improvised shelters in refugee camps in Africa. It also will contain posters and other works relating to the siege tower and other projects.
Houstonians should keep an eye out for works by Ortiz throughout the city. Each of Ortizʼs museum or gallery exhibitions has been accompanied by campaigns dispersed throughout the community, often in the form of posters advertising sweet, imaginary things like dreams of love or free snow cones.
Like all true revolutionaries, whether of the heart or the battlefield, the Spaztek, Ortiz says, “needs to jump in.” “He has passion, so he doesnʼt see the consequences; heʼs aware that he might be facing a dead end, but he has no regrets.” For the artist, this character and his countless mini-narratives of “cheesy love and heartbreak” parallel the stories of all those who may have been let down by the American dream but persist in its pursuit. Perhaps because Ortiz works as a high school teacher and is continually in contact with idealistic young people, his art is driven by a passion that is both personal and political. Like Keats, Byron, and Shelley, the capital “R” Romantic poets of the early 19th century, the Spaztek is an inspiration to wear your heart on your sleeve and dive headlong into the struggle for a better, purer world.
About the Artist
Born in Houston in 1972, Ortiz received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in printmaking from The University of Texas at San Antonio. Group exhibitions include Phantom Sightings, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, and Coyote girl steals the raspa, Ev+a, Limerick, Ireland. Ortiz has had solo shows at Artpace San Antonio, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, TX. Ortiz lives in San Antonio, where he also teaches high school.