Julio Ruelas (1870-1907) was a Mexican artist from Zacatecas who is quite influential for the small body of work that he left behind in his short lifetime.
Ruelas traveled through Europe before studying art in Germany and is best known for his dark, symbolist imagery and fantasy-based subject matter. A well-known illustrator in his lifetime, upon his return to Mexico, he created paintings and prints for the magazine “Revista Moderna” which appealed mostly to artists, poets and critics. He died before the beginning of the Mexican Revolution of “excesses” (tuberculosis) and was active at the Academia San Carlos (post-revolution it became the National Art School).
His most well-known image is known as either “The Critic” or “Criticism” and shows Ruelas, who most often depicted himself and his friends in his work, with what can only be described as a crazy looking hybrid beast that is part bat and part mosquito on his head (who is also wearing a top hat, a symbol, i’m going to assume, of the privileged bourgeoisie of the Porfiriato). We can gather that the critic is not Ruelas’ friend. In fact, it seems that criticism debilitates him to the point that he functions as if he’s had a lobotomy.
I’ve always been fascinated with the symbolists. One of the first artists I can remember obsessing over is Gustave Moreau. When I was nineteen and studying in Paris, I visited the Musee National Gustave Moreau. Unlike Ruelas, Moreau left thousands of images behind after his 72 years of life. You can pretty much rifle through them when you visit the museum. Like Ruelas, Moreau also counted writers and critics as his friends and was a well-known illustrator.
I’ve not found any literature that physically links the two artists, and Ruelas arrived in Paris to carry out the last three years of his life at least five years after old man Moreau had passed away. But, like most artists within the same movement, I’m sure that Ruelas was very familiar with Moreau’s work. It sure seems like it when you compare their imagery.
I know that I am attracted to the symbolists because of the narrative nature of their work. They are telling fantastical stories: myths, legends and nightmares. It appeals to the fatalistic aspect of my personality that I usually keep under wraps as a functioning adult.
I am drawn to the critic mainly because of that crazy little beast, but also because it addresses the part about being an artist that is the toughest for any sensitive person. Sitting in a room listening to what seems to be remarks that tear apart your images, your vocabulary, your ideas, can be rather painful. It can also be character building, however, and can improve your communication skills, prepare you for dealing with jerks and can teach you to b.s. about your work. All of those skills are very useful as a professional artist (and as a woman).
I learned to almost relish critiques (though I often had to self-medicate before or after with a vodka cocktail) during graduate school because it was an opportunity to see how the art world looked at my work and for me to prove to myself whether or not I could handle the criticism. I’m going to be honest, most of the time it wasn’t pretty.
I was not making conceptual art, I was not making big, beautiful paintings, I wasn’t making anything “sexy”. I was making prints about my childhood, or immigrants, or the zapatistas in chiapas. And it was all at some point called “didactic,” “too narrative” or “illustrative.” Some of the dirtiest of dirty words in the contemporary art scene.
And sometimes it was called beautiful, honest, charming and just plain awesome. You win some, you lose some.
It’s two years after I finished graduate school and my art career is not dead. In fact, I would say it’s doing better than ever. Granted, it’s not flourishing at art fairs or in contemporary art museums like many of my colleagues’ work. It also isn’t just sitting forgotten in a drawer or languishing in a trash bin. It’s at galleries and boutiques, it’s selling at community fundraisers and in museum gift shops and, most importantly, it’s hanging on a number of walls of people whom I know and people who I don’t know. My relatives have some of my work. Poets and activists, teachers, students and all kinds of people collect my work.
I work at a museum and I see every type of art come through the front door. I love every kind, from super traditional works on paper to super ephemeral contemporary pieces that are more markers of our current times. Some of it (from both sides of the spectrum) will last, most of it won’t. And all of my colleagues are very similar. There is room on the art palate of most individuals to savor a little bit of everything. Some people will love your work and others will hate it. It’s a crap shoot. Take the good advice and discard what is useless.
People tend to forget this in graduate school critiques. Professional critics tend to forget this in art journals. Or, if they don’t forget it, they forget to remind their readers that this fact is true: As long as you put your work out there, you will have an audience. Some of your colleagues will show at galleries, some at museums, some at libraries, universities, community art centers, in books, on buildings, in advertisements, on t-shirts or socks, in an impromptu show that someone throws up on a chainlink fence, on a tv set, you name it. And they are all fulfilling the goal they set when they went into art: to communicate with their audience.
My response to Ruelas. Image in progress.
So, in response to Ruelas and his aversion to criticism, I created this piece, tentatively titled “Self-Portrait: Response to Ruelas.” In it, criticism has created a nice compost heap in my head from which creativity springs.
Instead of a bat/mosquito, a hummingbird/colibri feeds from the plants the emerge from me.
It’s a piece I felt I had to make. It addresses a number of things, times and memories for me. It connects me to Ruelas, to Mexican history, to Moreau and Paris. It connects me to the nineteen year old who heard at a critique that her work was boring, and then strove to work at it until it wasn’t. It connects me to myself now. A thirty-three year old woman who has always been an artist and always will be.