Conrad Ruiz Paints Men Riding Flying Animals

One magic day, we found a postcard featuring a painting of Barack Obama riding a giant corgi, all laughs with two mysterious friends in tow.

Dec 31 1999, 5:00am

Overload, 2009, watercolor on canvas, 77" x 110", courtesy of the artist.

One magic day, we found a postcard featuring a painting of Barack Obama riding a giant corgi, all laughs with two mysterious friends in tow. At first we became very excited that this just might be a teaser for the government-sanctioned (and eagerly anticipated) sequel to the abomination that was The Neverending Story III, but then logic reared its stupid head into our faces and we realized it was just a neat piece of art. After a few days of digging through NSA databases and consulting gypsy fortunetellers, we found out that Conrad Ruiz was the guy who came up with the idea of putting our president atop a giant flying dog. We also discovered that he’s based in San Francisco, which is the subject of this very guide. So we got Conrad on the phone and berated him with questions.

VICE: First things first: This piece with Obama is called Overload. What the fuck is going on here?
Conrad Ruiz:
I was doing this riding series that was all paintings of guys riding on things. The one before Overload was of a couple friends of mine riding on a great white shark. That was my tough painting, so after that I wanted to make a cute painting. And the star of my cute painting just had to be Barack. It was during the election, and I was kind of banking that he was going to win. And then after he won, everyone was talking about what kind of dog he was going to get, so I was trying to guess too. I ended up being wrong on that, but I picked it because Queen Elizabeth has a bunch of corgis.

They are pretty cute.
And they’re so low and round and you want to hug them, kind of like a potbellied pig when it tries to get away! My friend had just gotten one during that time and it was peeing in my apartment. I have a really tiny place and it was driving me mad. So the dog was on my mind, and it just made sense. It was supposed to be a cute painting with bunnies and ducklings.

This is way better. Who are the other two guys on there supposed to be?
The kid in the middle is just this kid I made up. The other guy is my really good friend Jeff, who moved out to San Francisco a little bit before me. I used to work out with him, but his workouts are too intense so I just gave up. I’m this really tiny guy. We still ride bikes together, but I can’t keep up.

Why did you two move there?
I just moved out for my grad school program, at California College of the Arts. I’m originally from Southern California—the real suburbs, this town called Fontana, where it’s like, “We need sidewalks now.” I used to just commute every weekend to go to art shows. I guess that was enough to really give me a good idea of what I wanted to do. In LA there’s so much stuff going on. And I realize that San Francisco is a really different scene than Los Angeles, but I do like what’s going on there.

What are the big differences between LA and San Francisco? Is it one of those things where if you like LA then you won’t like San Francisco, and vice versa?
I think everybody from LA loves San Francisco but I don’t think it’s the other way around. Everyone from San Francisco is very satisfied where they are. I don’t think anyone here is looking out the window thinking, “Ah, I can’t wait to move back.” But that was me. Everybody thought I was crazy. At the time, my girlfriend, my family, and all the friends I grew up with were on the other side. Now it’s weird since I’m kind of in between the two.

What’s one of your favorite things about living there?
The bars here. People go to bars here not only to talk to their friends but also to talk to other people. It’s way more easygoing. The Southern California mentality is, you only talk to your friends, and if someone else is talking to you, someone in your group will be like, “Who’s this guy? Don’t just come up and talk to me.” Especially if they talk to a girl that’s a friend of yours. And then you kind of cock-block.

But that happens everywhere.
That’s true, but for example there’s this bar called Jack’s. It’s one of the best karaoke bars I’ve been to, and you just meet all these people there. I’ve gotten into a couple arguments there, but I was able to just yell at somebody and then walk away and then the person walked away too. Whereas in LA, if people get mad at each other, it seems like that becomes the drama of the night. Someone’s going to have to prove something by crying and throwing something down.

Yeah, it sucks when that happens. Is San Francisco all about being happy all the time and making new friends or is there shit you hate about the place?
There’s a really huge homeless population everywhere. It’s really easy to tell that a lot of people are out of their minds. It doesn’t make the city bad. It’s just, you want to help them, but a quarter’s not going to do it. You can’t help somebody help themselves. Maybe you can, but some people are pretty gone. You can be having a good time and you’re walking past them and maybe they’re having fun too, but sometimes they’re in a very dark spot, especially if it’s cold and the wind’s blowing across the Bay.

Rough Riders, 2008, watercolor on canvas, 83“ x 76“, courtesy of the artist.

What about galleries? Any tips on which ones people should check out?
Well, I do have a show coming up at Jessica Silverman’s gallery, and that’s in December. She’s younger and works really hard. We talked a while ago and she really won me over, so I wanted to do a show with her. It will be my first one in the city that’s outside of grad school. I only graduated a month ago. But I’ve always liked the work at Ratio 3, and at Marx & Zavaterro too.

What’s your work process like?
Usually it starts off with really bad sketches. I draw these things out and I kind of know what I’m looking for. I think that’s the great thing about this body of work that I’m doing—I get to let my imagination go. I write down pages and pages of ideas. Then I start picking some out and developing them. Sometimes I have to model myself or I find friends to model and that’s how I get the realism.

Ah yes, all the realism of a gigantic corgi.
Yeah, yeah. But I knew I wanted Obama to ride that corgi, so I just looked online for a lot of corgi photos and I finally found enough to give me a semirealistic one. And the paintings are projected. They’re not drawn freehand on the canvas. It gives me time to focus on the painting, on the accuracy of the drawing.

But how do you think of these things?
They are random, but they’re so specific also. Like right now, I’m working on a Shaq painting. I had a friend who was doing a Blackzilla painting and I was like, “Oh! I’m going to do a Shaqzilla painting.” My parents are really big Lakers fans. I’d always watch the games and see how Shaq was like a Tyrannosaurus rex—a little bit slower and with these huge legs. It kind of makes me think of Godzilla. I’m going to have him stumbling slowly through the city knocking down buildings and causing explosions with this blank stare.

I want to live in your brain.
It’s crowded. But that’s why it’s great. I get to reference everything, and that’s why one thing I’m constantly thinking about when I’m making work is the ultimate boy zone, like comic books, video games, fantasy, and sci-fi.

Well, when you say “boy zone,” San Francisco automatically comes to mind…
My work is a lot about masculinity, so San Francisco was the best place to be for that. It just made so much sense. The original jump-off point for this body of work was the idea of a climax series. I’m making these brightly colored, orgasmic paintings of only men. Some people have told me they thought I was a gay artist and they thought that of the work too, because I was genuinely interested in men. I’m fine with people thinking that. That wasn’t why I was making the work, but I’m more than happy for anybody to interpret it in their own way. There were several talented gay artists in my program who were making identity work. It’s not crazy to assume that I am this guy who really likes guys, so he’s painting guys. It makes sense. I didn’t really come out as straight until the second year of grad school.

So if you’re not gay, what’s the deal with your dude obsession?
I’m thinking about middle school and how when I was that young I wasn’t really cool enough to pick up chicks. I spent a lot of time with my friends playing video games on Friday nights. We were just having fun before girls starting complicating everything. I want to keep living in it, but now I have to face the real stuff.

Take a little peek inside Conrad’s brain at

Vice Channels