Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



The air in Joe Ramiro Garcia’s studio is stuffy. The summer afternoon sun in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is baking the place. Garcia’s long, wet, black hair is tied behind his head in a sloppy ponytail. Loose strands stick to his face. The armpits of his baby blue button-down shirt look like wading pools, yet he is drinking a cup of dark coffee that is steaming from the brim. The caffeine fuels an explosion of storytelling that would have even Robin Williams asking him to slow down. Inflection dances on Joe’s face. Unending energy beams from his eyes. His hands are gesturing faster than a Major League Baseball third base coach trying to disguise a bunt. With a personality as colorful as the finale at a 4th of July fireworks show, tossing out a topic for discussion is like lighting a fuse. Enlightened bombs of wit and wisdom burst from his chops making those around him “ooh,” “ahh” and shake their head in amazement.

“I’m not sure of anything, and I’m okay with it,” he says right off the bat. (What a profound statement – and coming from an artist – I’m speechless for a second. Joe is not.) “I’m not doing paintings of Britney Spears for a reason, but I don’t mind looking at her naughty parts,” he says coyly. “I mean I think they are there for a reason: to inform us about something. In a weird way she taps into Gustave Corbet who painted The Origin of the World – the first, famous beaver shot. The Britney Spears photo is kinda like Corbet meets McDonald’s, because I think she eats there, and you are what you eat.” Observation, relevance, honesty – that’s Joe’s thing, and I like it.

“Why are you sweating so damn bad?” I ask. “I’m a natural sweater,” he laughs. “I put everything into my body and I push it all out. My organs work really hard.”

“And what do you pump into your body?” I prod.

“Well… ummm… a lot of beer,” he says honestly – admitting that much of his artistic inspiration comes from hours logged on a barstool drinking Red Tail at a rustic BBQ joint in town called Cowgirls. “Actually, I’m just the weirdo, sweating, crazy artist. If I eat hot chili, my head will start erupting like a volcano with sweat from the top.”

During a not-so-sober night at Cowgirls, Garcia invented “Spin the Bible.” It’s not the kind of communion that God had in mind, but it’s tasteful to Joe. Anything that is said or written in public could end up in one of Garcia’s paintings. “I pick up notes from coasters when people are flirting or joking with each other,” he says. One note read: “So much you’ll never know” and it had a heart on it. Joe thought it was so stupid that he used it. Another note read: “Don’t take no shit from anybody and I hope you make lots of money, babe!” “It’s just so slutty, but it’s real,” Garcia grins. “You end up in all these people’s worlds and it makes you stop and think, ‘Well, that’s a little odd.’ I think the more fucked up your life is, the more people find it interesting. You know, we’re all fucked up to varying degrees.”

If I ever needed more evidence of the loose screws in Joe’s head, all I had to do was ask about the big orange fish swimming obliviously through plastic kelp in a tank in his studio. According to Joe, he’s a parrot-faced cichlid hybrid with “aggressive eating issues.” So, of course, Joe named him “Pecker.” For some reason I think it’s kinda cool that the “weirdo, sweating, crazy artist” would name his fish “Pecker.” Maybe that makes me fucked up, too – ultimately proving Joe’s point.

There is some semblance of normalcy, however, in Garcia’s studio. Brushes, a palette of oils, tools, the ordinary are strewn about on his art cart. But after closer inspection of his work area a disturbing rag sadly grabs my attention. “What the hell is that?” I ask. “My briefs,” he cackles in a paint-peeling octave. That’s right! Crustier than a permanent wedgie, Joe has just admitted that he uses his gray, Old Navy underwear to wipe his canvases and clean his brushes.

A picture of Marilyn Monroe, PacMan, a famous Indian, an alien, a strange looking mouse drawn into a mylar balloon and dozens of symbolic and famous figures serve as disjointed wallpaper in Garcia’s studio. A picture of Jesus hangs by blue industrial tape in the middle of it all and in the most unholy of places. A filthy Pillsbury Doughboy and other stuffed animals are propped up on shelves. These images seem to swirl around the room, and when the time is right, they make their way into his work. Garcia absorbs culture and then purges it onto a painting. From silly love notes to his dad’s old manhole servicing schedule, from everyday objects to references of art history, from playful caricatures of pop icons to strangely unsettling cartoon figures – every image on a Joe Ramiro Garcia canvas is a metaphor for the human condition. Most have universal significance and all have the potential to jolt personal memories – some much stranger than others. “That’s why I have to sweat it all out,” Garcia says. “If I don’t, I’m responsible for holding in the truth about Snuggles the fabric softener bear. For the rest of my life it would be lodged in some weird area of my mind with this idea that I can’t use it because someone else came up with it. I think that’s crap. I’m like, ‘Hey, you gave it to me, man! Don’t show me these pictures if you don’t want me to use ’em.’ I’ve painted Snuggles a lot because the reality is that he’s spooky just giggling above the dryer – HeeHeeHee.”

In one painting, a headshot of Snuggles is centered with the lyrics to Gloria Gayner’s “I Will Survive” floating around it. The words are just quasi-legible with the letters all bunched up together and no spaces. Off to the side is a drawing of a water faucet and spigot signifying perhaps a baptism or the fact that the bear is just “all wet.” Garcia likes to leave his paintings open to interpretation. “It’s goofy for me to tell you what to think,” he explains. “If it gets to the point where the painting gets so narrative that it’s telling you what to understand, then it’s just boring. So for me, there’s something about that gooey, middle space of not knowing or not being sure. I like the idea of a painting being able to fight for itself and say, ‘I’m here. I’m doing my thing. And, do you want to look at me or not?'”

I ask about the significance of the song “I Will Survive,” and Joe does add some perspective. For him, it’s not just a cheesy disco track; it serves as a double entendre – an anthem for painting and for life. “I thought, what if pop music was as deep as our culture could ever get,” he says. “What if pop music was actually the truth about who we are? And it’s scary, but if you think about it, it really is. Sure we’re capable of writing great books and religious canticles about the glory of God, but it all comes down to survival. That is our anthem: ‘We’ve got to survive.’ So as a painter, I honor the message. I don’t need a gun when things are shitty, instead I say, ‘No matter what I’m going to make it!'”

Motto aside, Garcia has the opposite of a puffy chest. He still gets nervous every time he brings a new batch of paintings to a gallery. “As I’m loading them in the van, I say things like, ‘Who could love you?’ and, ‘Oh my God, what did I do here?’ For me, painting is not meditation; it’s problem solving,” he says. “‘Okay now you’ve painted yourself into a corner, so how the hell do you get out of it?’ There’re all kinds of ways of beating yourself up as an artist. So maybe there’s a bit of a torturous, Catholic side of painting in what I do. Personally, I’m not Catholic. But once you’ve been there – you’re still sweating that out the rest of your life. So torture is hard work, very much a Tex-Mex sort of aesthetic. When it comes to painting it’s not all about beauty, delight, wonderful colors and celebration of light, it’s also fricking hard work. I’m constantly berating myself saying, ‘I’m so stupid that I did this, now what am I gonna do?'”

Case in point: a completed piece hanging on the wall in Garcia’s studio. Slithering across a gigantic, dirty-white canvas is a bizarre, multi-colored snake-type thing. It’s a cross between a flavorful Freeze Pop and a really insane bowel movement. The initial concept was a spin-off of the bright magnets his parents used to attach to the family refrigerator. It quickly took on a life of its own. “It’s very twisted,” Garcia prefaces, “but I’ve always believed that there’s this inner life inside appliances and homes. The electricity in the house is like the blood. The little outlets are sort of like the genitalia – well that’s the female part, and then the switch is the male part. So in this case, it’s more like this life energy.” The magnet/strip of home energy/colorful line morphed into a strange serpent with deep roots. It was an accident that Garcia accepted. “My life is full of mistakes and therefore my painting method should also honor that type of clumsy mannerism. In this case, it’s identified in the snake being kind of turdish.”

That turd snake and everything else in Garcia’s paintings are all made of oil or alkyd paint. That fact blows me away, because it appears that objects are stuck to his canvases. The art has texture, depth and a collage-type feel to it. Garcia gets those effects by using a palette knife which interprets a line without leaving a brushstroke. But his signature moves come from his background in printmaking. Garcia adapted his skills in monotype and paper lithography to create his own style of oil painting. The photographic imagery that appears to hang on Garcia’s canvases is all done by a paint transfer technique. Even the little scribbles, which look like they’ve been scratched with a ballpoint pen or colored pencil, are done in oil. “Essentially, it’s the same concept as carbon paper where you write on it and lift it. What I’m doing is creating an oil paper. I roll oil onto paper and when it gets to the right consistency, the right tact and dryness, I put the paper against the canvas and take a pen, finger nail or any tool and draw on the back of it. Whatever is happening on the back of the paper is pushing oil paint onto the canvas. In that way I still consider it very much painting… anytime the paint touches the canvas it’s painting to me.”

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Garcia grew up in Texas, and he and the state didn’t get along so well. “Everything is so big there and I’m a little guy,” he says. “Texas is like GRRR and I’m like heeeee.” Mom was a high school janitor. Dad worked for the city of Houston. Dad also drove a car plastered with Houston Oilers memorabilia. It was like a moving museum. Joe hid when he saw it coming down the street. His three older sisters were hip, and Joe got his first introduction to art by watching them paint their fingernails funky colors. The family had a “Jesus corner” full of religious trinkets, symbols and candles where they prayed and gave thanks for just about everything.

The family spent a lot of time in that corner worrying about Joe. At age five, he told his mom he wanted to kill himself. Several times. That dark period lasted a decade. At 13 years old, he overdosed on prescription medication and eventually got addicted to LSD. He lived in the attic and swore a ghost once slapped him in the face… probably the drugs. Joe always felt alone – like he didn’t fit in with Texas or his own Hispanic culture. He was into different things than his peers and had few friends. He even thought his family’s jokes were dumb. At age 15, though, art became Joe’s savior. He went to Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – an environment that promoted the idea of becoming a fine artist. The teachers gave Joe confidence that he could break down the sad walls he’d built. “I went through that period and got through what I think was some of the hardest darkness of my life,” he recounts. “It was really about accepting exactly who I was and not being so belittled by Texas and all that surrounded me.”

Garcia’s art career began by walking the streets of Houston listening to Miles Davis on his headphones and picking up trash. He collaged wrappers, crushed metal, photos and the like on cardboard that he’d covered in house paint and newspaper. His work got him into the Art Institute of Chicago. Then when he turned 20, he moved to New Mexico on a whim, because the trains that steamed by his boyhood home had the name “Santa Fe” written on every car. “I immediately liked the people here because they are freaks just like me,” he says. Twenty-one years later, he’s still in Santa Fe and has learned to embrace his vulnerability by being strong enough to say that sometimes he’s weak. It’s given him the backbone to trust his intuition.

In just a few hours with Joe Ramiro Garcia, I’ve learned that what he paints comes straight out of his nervous system the same way all that sweat does. He’s worked hard to achieve a harmonious balance between the challenges of his past and the successes of his present – in art and in life. Joe admits that boredom is one of his biggest enemies but he’s able to beat it off with a paintbrush, a beer mug and a mind that gobbles up subject matter like a fat guy at a lifetime buffet. Garcia likes it when his own art freaks him out. He says it’s the only way it will work. “I want this strange kind of, ‘Oh no you did NOT bring Jesus to the art show’ thing going on with my work – where people ask, ‘GOD, who invited Him to the party?'”

Big surprise that the invitation came from that weirdo, sweating crazy artist with a fish named Pecker.

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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