“All I want is a house. I don't care about fame. I don't care about money. I just want to have a house. That's all I want.” Sitting on a rooftop in the center of Mexico City overlooking a cathedral, Los Angeles-based multi-disciplinary artist and fashion designer, Gabriela Ruiz, also known as Leather Papi, contemplates the motivation behind her monochromatic and brightly colored installations that replicate rooms in an imaginary home. It’s an overcast day in the nation’s capital with bouts of sunny clarity that are quickly covered by ominous clouds signaling oncoming rain. But the threat of a storm doesn’t stop Ruiz from dressing to the nines replete with velvet magenta pants, long orange acrylic nails full of rhinestones that glitter with the occasional sunlight and an elaborately designed satin blouse featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe (Ruiz quickly points out she’s not religious but loves the intricacy). Even her teeth are diamond encrusted.
Ruiz is in Mexico City for the opening of “Bridges in Times of Walls: Chicano/Mexican-American Art from Los Angeles to Mexico,” a wide-ranging and rare exhibit of Chicano art from the AltaMed Health Services Corporation collection. The exhibition was held in the city’s Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil. The opening night of the exhibit featured a performance by Ruiz within her more permanent installation piece. Featuring discarded furniture given a new life by way of paint and insulating foam, a corner of the museum is transformed into a surrealist and colorful room in a home of the artist’s imagination. These monochromatic textured installations have become a signature of Ruiz’s, and they reveal the artist’s lifelong desire for stability, a longing for a home to call her own and her childhood fascination with color informed by trips to her father’s native land: Mexico City. Her performances, on the other hand, often question religion, gender expectations and traditions.
On the night of the opening, Ruiz entered the room full of Mexico City’s elite in suits and dresses. Commanding attention in a billowing bright yellow dress and a sculpture of braids on her head, she passed out yellow communion wafers to the attendees. Once settled within her furniture pieces cleverly titled, “A Cinderella Story of Everyday Objects,” she began moving her body, becoming a moving object in her installation. Then, unexpectedly, instead of eating the communion wafers, she knelt before the suited people and smashed the body of Christ with her head, one after the other, until all that remained were shattered wafers scattered on the museum floor.
Take a quick peek of Ruiz's installation by clicking below:
The 27-year-old was raised in the San Fernando Valley moving frequently in a divided home with a religious father and non-religious mother. Ruiz always questioned the validity of religion. This skepticism peaked when Ruiz’s family paid a priest to expedite her first communion so she could have a quinceanera. “I remember the first time I had an oblea (communion wafer) it was because a priest from T.J. came in and did the whole process in like two days. We just had to pay him,” describes Ruiz. “I just think it's a joke. If I go to church, I'm able to eat the oblea because I did the fake first communion and he gave me a certificate. He was just like trying to make money. Church is like just a way to make money.”
Growing up she was always creatively inclined and discovered sculpture at a nearby college where a professor introduced her to insulation foam as a way to create large textured masses. Ruiz fell in love with the material’s versatility and ability to create interactive and surrealist scenes. The artist also started her own fashion line named after her moniker “Leather Papi.” Her designs were often gender neutral, featuring harnesses and leather. It was important for Ruiz to provide pieces for Latinxs, who, like her, were into BDSM culture but were severely under-represented.
Nightlife was significant in introducing Ruiz to performance art and creating a community of like-minded artists. Being part of queer brown nightlife in Los Angeles allowed Ruiz to meet other artists like Rafa Esparza, San-Cha and Sebastian Hernandez and experience renowned performance art. Instrumental in this nightlife scene was Nacho Nava, who recently passed away. He created the long-running Mustache Monday's party where many musicians and performance artists got their start. “You pay your ten or fifteen-dollar ticket to go hear music and dance all night. But then in the middle of it you have a great fucking performance artist who will just perform in the middle of the night. You don't have to go to a museum to experience this.”
A few years ago, Ruiz started performing at queer events in Los Angeles like “Club Scum” where she painted her body blue, applied red lace to her body and danced around to Mexican pop song “Chica Embarazada (Pregnant Girl).” When the song ended, she threw up blood. The artist began combining all three of her creative expressions: fashion, performance and sculpture by designing rooms of monochromatic furniture covered with insulating foam to create dream-like settings for her performances.
In May, while visiting family in Mexico City, Ruiz decided she would have work exhibited in Bellas Artes, a prominent cultural center. It didn’t matter that no one had invited her to exhibit there. Ruiz bought an old vanity and chair, painted them red and blue respectively and covered them in foam so they took on a coral reef-like appearance. She then dragged the furniture for a mile and plopped it at the entrance of Bellas Artes in the center of Mexico City. “If you don’t wanna take my work, I’ll put it in your face and you have to see it. Bellas Artes is so white and so clean and then you have my fluorescent pieces,” describes Ruiz. “In a way, it got more attention outside than inside.”
Ruiz approached her installation at “Bridges in Times of Walls” similarly. She sourced all her material from markets in Mexico City and found discarded pieces on the streets. Ruiz then gave them texture with her signature foam and painted them a neon orange and highlighter yellow. The final room was partly inspired by the surrealist photograph “Dali Atomicus:” a table hung from the ceiling, a bed frame was propped up against the wall and a chandelier hung low almost touching the floor. There was an old TV on the floor that was also covered in orange paint. It played a video of the artist wrapping herself in string and burning her naked body with candles. Her performance, installation and video converge to create a home of the artist’s choosing, a home where religion is questioned, sexual freedom is celebrated and the typical elements that make up a home are distorted and given a new life — a more interesting life of energetic color and bulbous foam that is at once disturbing and reassuring in its monochrome serenity.
Back on the rooftop, the clouds have permanently settled in; the rain is close. Ruiz continues her artistic self-reflection. “I never had stability. I fantasize a lot about houses and I would even say as a little kid "I can't wait till I have my huge house because my huge house is going to have rooms with different colors. I think a home is like the end goal to life.” In a way, Ruiz has found a sort of home through her creations, a home on her terms.
Top Image:Gabriela Ruiz's "A Cinderella Story of Everyday Objects." | Samanta Helou Hernandez