Visual Arts

Franco Mondini-Ruiz Plays Ringmaster at Opening of "Dulce: Bisque Without Borders" at ASU's Ceramic Research Center

​​Imagine whirring together Circus Vargas, a downtown Phoenix botanica, Lagunilla and/or Plaza del Ángel flea market in Mexico City, and a walk down Tijuana's Avenida Revolución during which you are beset with insistent barkers pushing stuffed frogs dressed as mariachis for "almost free." Got it?

If you can, maybe, just maybe, you'll get an inkling of the ambience at Friday night's opening of "Dulce: Bisque Without Borders" at ASU Art Museum's Ceramics Research Center. And all those seemingly wild references are spot-on appropriate, considering that Tex-Mex artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz, the curator of the CRC show and focal point of Friday night's performance entitled "Tienda Franco," was dressed as a ringmaster with glaringly striped pants, bow tie and black jacket. 

Enthusiastically working an intrigued crowd, the artist peddled his artful wares with the elán of a used car salesman, touting bargains galore. The only things missing were a top hat and whip.

​Based in San Antonio, Texas, The Great Mondini, as I heard him called by museum staff, is the offspring of an "upper-crust Italian father and a working class Tex-Mex mother" who was raised in San Antonio's Mexican-American community.  

His specialty is examining the often outrageous visual and psychological facets of Mexican-American border culture. While the "dulce" appellation in the title of the show means sweet in Spanish, Mondini-Ruiz's ceramic concoctions and swap meet-appearing paintings combining the funky and the fine, the sacred and the profane, are, in reality, anything but. 

His sculptural pieces incorporate kitschy French-themed tchotchkes, pieces of old Mexican folk art, tourist pottery and popular Mexican religious objects, as well as inedible fake food and drink items - cupcakes, donuts, margaritas and martinis. 

 But beneath all that cloying sugariness lies an acerbic wit that makes your fillings tingle while simultaneously skewering your social sensibilities.

Mondini-Ruiz's seemingly goofy pieces are clearly post-modern takes on classic colonial castas paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries that illustrate, sometimes rather rudely, the complex caste system based on race set up after the Spanish took over Mexico in the 16th century.

Obsessed with "limpieza de sangre," or pureness of blood, the Spanish colonial government made sure that mestizos -- people of mixed heritage -- didn't pollute its social or political gene pools. Funny that this obnoxious sentiment is still around 450 years later, very notably in the American Southwest, as Mondini's work attests.

​Like his art, Mondini-Ruiz's life has been an assemblage of extremes, including practicing corporate law for 10 years, later operating a botánica in San Antonio as both a an on-going art installation/performance and an actual retail outlet where people from the barrios could buy traditional Mexican herbs and powders for healing and spells, as well as magical amulets and religious candles. 

Mondini's shop also became something of a salon for local artists, writers and other creative types, morphing into a physical manifestation of the artist's obsession with combining high with low, folk with fine art, common with creative, classical with contemporary. In the world of Mondini-Ruiz, everything and everyone is essentially mestizo.

As part of the exhibition, Mondini-Ruiz has chosen work from the museum's collection for display, some of which pieces, according to ASU Art Museum's Curator of Ceramics Peter Held, have not seen the light of day in years. 

The artist/curator mixes ceramic fine art by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Beatrice Wood with mostly Mexican folk art in clay, often unattributable, continuing the theme of linking opuestos or opposites on a variety of levels. 

 In addition, he's completely reorganized and reinstalled work in the CRC's open storage area, which is now arranged in chronological order and in sections dedicated to particular types of work, with tables filled with selected pieces displayed as if they were on sale at some high-end boutique.

For a little taste of what awaits you in the CRC's "Dulce" show, which runs until December 31, check out our slideshow.

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Kathleen Vanesian