At the Visual Arts Collective, it's not uncommon to catch a peeping tom, a girl or boy whose eyes dart furtively in both directions before they sneak into the opposite sex's bathroom. Galvanizing these voyeuristic whims are Erin Ruiz and Rick "Paste Eater" Walter's bright illustrations that rise out of the stalls and creep across the walls of both rooms. After fielding countless questions about their commode creations, VAC owners Sam Stimpert and Anneliessa Balk-Stimpert decided to do something about it. A short month ago, they contacted Ruiz and Walter to set up a joint show outside of the john aptly titled "Art from the Toilet."
"Part of it was that we were really far behind [booking exhibits], and I knew that I could trust them. Part of it was because people had been asking constantly to buy stuff from the people that did the bathrooms, and I didn't have anything here," says Stimpert.
With only a month to get work together for the show, both Ruiz and Walter were under a considerable amount of stress to complete their pieces before the public opening last Friday, Aug. 8. As with the bathroom walls—where Ruiz and Walter painted at different times and rarely bumped into each other—neither artist had seen the other's work for their current exhibit until the day before the show's opening.
"The majority of the things I have here were done in the last three weeks ... I guess maybe I just work well under pressure because I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off," jokes Walter.
And with a 3-week-old newborn son, Early, it's difficult to imagine how Walter found the time to complete the four large-scale canvases and collection of sketchbook illustrations that now adorn VAC's gallery walls. Walter had been working on his spooky four-panel piece, Soul Housing, for more than a year without success, but only recently felt inspired to finish it. The work features a stitched together, FernGully-esque fire monster destroying a city and belching smoke. The cartoonish ghosts of burned houses float aimlessly through the darkening sky. Like much of Walter's work, Soul Housing depicts a chaotic, yet resigned confrontation between destruction and despair.
"I feel hopelessness in a lot of the pieces," notes Walter. "I've done a lot of pieces where people are stranded in the ocean or burning houses or things like that. Things that are somewhat destructive or terrifying. [Ruiz] seems to have a similar theme."
Another of Walter's pieces in the exhibit, which sold almost immediately, has a comparable feel. Blue Birds shows a highly detailed jumble of grounded birds that are struggling to spread their wings and break free of the flock. It's hard to tell whether the few sickly birds in the cream-colored sky are flying up or falling down. A barbed wire fence in the background imbues the environment with a labor-camp-like sense of desperation. This frenzied lack of control is a thread that runs through all of the work in the exhibit, including Ruiz's.
"It's always a little spooky how similar our stuff is. A lot of people think that it's the same artist sometimes," says Walter.
One of Ruiz's larger pieces in the show, Death of a Rooftop Birdkeeper, depicts a limp woman in a long, flowered skirt whose head is a ball of light. Two red canaries look on as she's lifted up into the sky by struggling bluebirds over a hazy red cityscape. In a similar painting titled The Disappearance of Emily Waters, a girl with black-and-white-striped socks is carried by a red umbrella over an ocean dotted by foreboding Harry Potter-esque jagged rocks. Her pointy shoe has fallen off and careens down toward the murky water. The figures in both pieces resignedly accept the forces outside of their control that propel them upwards, towards their fate.
"Both of their work recently has a floaty theme that's going throughout it. They fit so well together," notes Stimpert.
Another similarity in Ruiz and Walter's pieces in the show is their allegorical use of animals. In Walter's Balloon Cat, a large, inflated red cat floats over an ocean with a balloon-like knot in its tail. A pink octopus tentacle creeps out of the water with a life saver stuck around it, and a tiny man walks into the horizon. In Ruiz's Senor Feathers' Funeral, a naked woman looks on as a giant earthworm snakes out of a birdcage. Worms and tentacles seem to represent worldly emotions that creep from the dark recesses of the unknown. People float away listlessly while birds, which flutter through both artists' pieces, are burdened and unable to soar.
And though both Ruiz and Walters have found considerable success in the Boise art market, their highly detailed, illustrative method has its roots planted firmly in the street art scene—a style many in the art world have snobbishly pegged as "low brow" or "pop-surrealism." Because this largely self-taught movement has more in common with tattoos and graphic novels than art-school-sanctified fine art, it has remained largely illegitimate in certain critical circles.
"A lot of people sort of downplay this style as low brow," explains Stimpert. "A lot of groups don't consider it fine art; I personally do. So it's kind of a stab at that, calling it 'Art from the Toilet.'"
But Boise collectors don't seem to carry the same prejudices as the art world at large. Artists like Ruiz, Walter and Ben Wilson are consistent big-sellers when they show work at places like the Basement Gallery or Flying M. Opening night alone, VAC sold around $3,000 in art. Before the party was over, little red "sold" stars dotted most of the gallery's walls. Although that figure was boosted considerably from the sale of Walter's Blue Birds, which had a $1,200 price tag, the rest came from Ruiz's tiny pieces, like White Hunter, which sell for $100 to $150.
"Erin is one of our best sellers of all time here," Stimpert says. "We certainly want her to come back as much as she'll come."
If the financial success of "Art from the Toilet" is any clue, the pop-surrealism scene in Boise is proliferating. Call the art low brow if you must, but it's high time we recognize this trend. Though the show itself might have benefited from more time in the incubator, the public's reception opening night was more than encouraging. Most importantly, the startling similarities between Ruiz and Walter's work seem to show evidence of a budding artistic dialogue among Boise's young creative class.
"Art from the Toilet" runs through Sept. 30. Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., Garden City, 208-424-8297.