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Kitchen Kitsch

There's a reason why Franco Mondini-Ruiz is so hot right now

As far as titles go, Woman Talking to Meat Patty is about as descriptive as you can get. There she sits, a little ceramic lady straight out of 19th-century France, her head tilted in rapt attention as she engages a grilled slab of ground round. The patty is about twice her size, and you have to wonder if her husband could ever bring the meat like that. And then you see him, across the room, engaged in his own dialogue. He's Man Talking to Doughnut, and it doesn't take much to complete the sexual metaphor.

These two characters, each less than a foot tall, are part of Franco Mondini-Ruiz's "¡Qué Purdy!" installation at the New World Museum. The artist has taken ceramic curios and other gewgaws -- the kind of stuff that usually sits in a cabinet, looking pretty, never touched -- and broken them into pieces, no doubt to the dismay of antiques-loving grandmothers everywhere. He then reassembled the parts into little sculptures, often adding fake or preserved meat patties, doughnuts, coffee, cake, brownies and pizza to the mix. These assemblages are laid out in a grid on a short platform in the middle of the museum space, creating an installation that never reaches past your knees. A cross between kitchen and kitsch, it's deliciously clever.

Mondini-Ruiz is a smart guy. He was an attorney until about ten years ago, when he had a midlife crisis of sorts, selling most of his belongings and buying a botánica in San Antonio. He kept the 80-year-old shop's traditional fare -- herbs, religious icons, candles, that kind of stuff -- and added pre-Colombian artifacts and contemporary art, including some of his own pieces. The shop became an installation in itself, and it was an instant success. A few years later the artist got a place in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, followed up by a couple of high-profile grants, the Rome Prize for Visual Art, and shows at the Fowler Museum and Ballroom Marfa. In November 2004, ARTnews named him one of its "25 Movers, Shakers and Makers" -- not bad for a guy who used to piddle around pushing paper.

His show at the New World Museum is sure to evoke a "What the hell is this?" kind of response from the uninitiated. At first glance, it looks like he's just taken a bunch of trinkets and laid them out in a grid. But once you kneel down and take a good look at the pieces, you start to see how the artist has manipulated just about every one of them, forcing them into compelling and comical micronarratives.

Little figurines have had their heads removed and replaced with brownies. A hot-dog bun holds a Kool cigarette and a tiny bottle of Johnnie Walker, which is half empty (at least in the eyes of a pessimist). A row of Dunkin' Donuts cups has been overturned, their liquid coagulated together -- a nod to gag gifts of the same variety. And a ruby slipper sits far away from its mate, with a little piece of toilet paper stuck to its heel.

Perhaps most poignant in the installation are the pieces titled Mojados, which is the Mexican term for "wetbacks." In one, a teacup sits atop a saucer, replete with spoon and éclair. Inside is a gelatinous brown liquid, out of which pop three little porcelain heads, making their way across an imaginary Rio Grande. All that's lacking is a redneck with a gun, and the scene would be complete.

Scattered throughout the grid are little nothing pieces, such as candy, flowers and plastic streamers. These play the part of negative space, allowing your eyes to dart up and down Mondini-Ruiz's bizarre landscape. There can be too much of a good thing, and the artist has figured out how many points on the grid needn't be so chock-full of meaning, lest you think, "What, another statue with an ice cream cone on its head?"

Mondini-Ruiz brought in his mother for the show's opening, where she sold $5 pieces of cake in a trailer behind the museum. This simple gesture is emblematic of his whole aesthetic. His work always seems to play with notions of Latino identity and commercialism, and the man has a serious food fetish.

The New World Museum has scored with this exhibition -- only its third since opening last year -- and Mondini-Ruiz's work is a perfect match for the space. The museum has no standing collection, and the artist doesn't seem to be big on materialism, either. (After all, this is a guy who sold just about everything he owned during his show in Marfa, at $99 per square foot.) The museum's mission is to show the best in contemporary Hispanic art, and Mondini-Ruiz is one of the hottest figures out there right now, period.

keith.plocek@houstonpress.com

 
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