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Jose Tence Ruiz in the age of ‘artificial confusionism’

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 10, 2023 5:00 am

Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz really is one of a kind. They don’t make any more of his version, and that’s perhaps a good thing. If Midjourney could copy the inside of his brain, it might implode or tear its own algorithms apart.

We bring up AI because the artist himself does so quite often, walking us through his recent Ateneo Gallery show, “Litanya: 1972 to 2022”—a curated selection of 34 mixed-media pieces and canvases, plus a healthy dollop of editorial cartoons—where he proves himself the audiobook equivalent to a collection spanning 50 years thus far. (And also the living, talking embodiment of the fulsome four-cover coffee-table book of the same title, copies of which he signs later.)

He wonders what all this artificial intelligence is for. “Oh, my God, do we need more intelligence? Intelligence has brought us to our crisis. Maybe what we need is AC: Artificial Compassion. AT: Artificial Transcendence. AW: Artificial Wisdom. We need more of those things, because obviously, all the intelligence has still brought us to the brink of self-extinction.”

“You could do 10 years just on the jeepney!” is what one of Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz’s thesis advisers told him. Shown with “Minibus,”  which has been updated numerous times since 1981.

That’s the journalist in Bogie, always ready with a neologism. In fact, he terms what he does “artistic journalism.” Starting as an editorial cartoonist for Manila Chronicle and Who magazine after studying at Ateneo, he developed a worldly take in Singapore and elsewhere, and started transforming things around him into conversation pieces, like “Si Erding Erdrayb at ang Kanyang Palasyong Agaw-Tanang” (“Driver Erding and His Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Don’t Palace,”1980), a cabinet of assembled curiosities and talismans and day-to-day survival gear that he donated to Ateneo; or the oft-modified “Minibus” (1981), which in today’s configuration includes a dead cat on the front bumper representing “the idealists among us, frozen in the headlights.”

Bogie has always been drawn to “the scraggly things” around him. (“We all like things that are in decay.”) A “deep fan of the gothic,” he revels in odd juxtapositions of wealth and poverty between the streets and the towers around him. And to not notice or note them down would be a kind of cosmic heresy. Let AI come up with random chaos for sale in NFT form; Bogie’s path is to paint what he sees.

“Litanya: 1972-2022 (The Works of Jose Tence Ruiz)” at Wilson L. Sy Prints and Drawing Gallery. At front, ‘“Dayo”; back wall right: “Alibangbang.”

Wordplay is a constant driver—or erdrayb—of his work. AI would never be able to pun with such facility. Ruiz explains: “This is always the play I like to make: something remotely recognizable—but also something remotely hidden and a bit devious inside of it.” He pauses before a wooden piece called “Screwpulous” from 2017: a large lump of wood, perhaps resembling a lechon, pierced with a dozens or so screwdrivers, lying on a bed of blue paint. From above, we see it as a Christ figure, screwdrivers as a crown of thorns, a St. Sebastian element to it as well. “If you cannot figure out the blue,” he explains, “it was the dominant force during EJK.”

We stop at a large canvas called “Alibangbang”—Visayan for “butterfly.” It’s Bogie’s “tribute” to Imelda: “With the shiny neck, and the wings made of carcasses, coming out of the cocoon of violence… A little architectural trivia: the wood was named Madeira Imelda. And it’s held together by butterfly nuts.”

At center is the installation “Si Erding Erdrayb at Ang Kanyang Palasyong Agaw-Tanaw (Erding Erdrayb and his Eye-Catching Palace)” from 1980. Photo: Clefvan Pornela

Bogie was the tip of the spear when the Philippines returned to the Venice Biennale in 2015. His large-scale version of the BSP Sierra Madre, a lone decrepit Philippine vessel guarding disputed territorial waters (“Shoal”), was literally installed inside a decrepit Italian palazzo, swathed in red velvet, looking to all the world like a ghostly, ghastly vision of a church filling an upstairs room (“like Magritte’s apple,” he said at the time).

I reckon that the real movement now will be ‘abstract confusionism.’ I mean, there will be an entire generation of people who will just be sharing their bewilderment.

There’s no space for the wrapped “Shoal” in the upstairs Wilson L Sy Prints and Drawings Gallery, but Bogie has wrapped a suitcase in bras and panties (“Dayo,” or “Away”)—a wry reflection on the way Singaporean airport security guards would handle Filipino maids’ personal items to “try to embarrass them.”

“Tango Benigno” (2006) features freckle-free Kris Aquino “dancing” with Ninoy.

Wrapping things is a form of revealing them, ironically. His ultimate metaphor for aspirational Filipino society is the ornate cotillion ball dress, like those he saw parading around the US and Havana in his travels: “That sums it up: this absurd, pointless gown. There is just too much of a layer of society that wastes all its energy on its vanity, on First World-hood only for themselves.”

Metaphor comes naturally to a man raised on journalism. It’s certainly a way of reporting what he sees around him, imbibing the news, and making it resonate in physical objects. Puns aplenty, but they’re palpably visible in the work, layered; shrewd, even.

“Screwpulous” (2017), installation of camachile wood, acacia wood, cement, screwdrivers, oil, acrylic, enamel, polyurethane. Photo: Clefvan Pornela

The title of the exhibit and book (“Litanya”) refers to both a list and a prayer, as Bogie writes in his Foreword: “Many of the works here are my personal form of daily prayer, and thus I called this accumulation my Litany. Each work wanted something for the world, wanted something for my community and loved ones, wanted something for me.”

But also, after three years of pandemic and the loss of several artist colleagues, Bogie, at 67, has started to think: “I’d better make a proper inventory.” The book documents “about 647 works, which is 448 pages long and I’d say about 93% accurate,” he tells us. At the urging of Ateneo Art Gallery director Boots Herrera, he selected from among roughly 5,000 items in his stored boxes—declassified or not—dozens of editorial cartoons to add to the show. They form a chronology of Filipino history, as much as an artist’s history.

Scores of editorial cartoons were pulled from the artist’s (unclassified?) boxes to augment “Litanya.”

History is absent from AI’s musings. At the book launch, Bogie asked, “What does the 50 years represent for me from ’73 to 2023? It represents the entry year when AI is going to play a big, big part in our lives.” He’s “not necessarily happy” that it’s making it harder for us to tell our faith from our fakes. (Never mind lifting images from elsewhere to pass off as the Philippines.) He mentions an artist selling AI-generated Amorsolos as Gigli prints online. “I ask you, is that art? Telling a slave that can do everything for you to just do it?” (Then again, he mentions Jeff Koons as a pioneer of remote-controlled art making. One could add Warhol, and the Sistine Chapel frescoes completed by Michelangelo’s assistants.)

“I reckon that the real movement now will be ‘abstract confusionism.’ I mean, there will be an entire generation of people who will just be sharing their bewilderment.”

Sharing bewilderment, actually, has always been the artist’s path. There’s this battle in Bogie’s work, between “cyclos” (something circular in nature) and universality. “Things repeat again and again. Sometimes the universality drowns out the chismis. And the interesting stuff is in the chismis!”

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“Litanya, 1972-2022: The Works of Jose Tence Ruiz,” is open for public viewing at the Wilson L Sy Prints and Drawings Gallery, 2F, Ateneo Art Gallery. Copies of the book are available at the Ateneo Art Gallery Museum shop. Visit