Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Sharon Servilio reviews Martin Ramirez at American Folk Museum

Young artists today are hungry for alternate histories, particularly when it comes to the recent past. Walk into any major collection of modern art and you will see the same history being sold again and again. A relatively small number of artists have “made it” into the canon, allowing us to relax into the logical, cause-and-effect model of history in which one movement follows another in a neat line. Unfortunately, this line seems to be always running into dead ends or circling back on itself, and many artists are now seeking to widen their perspective and searching for other legacies to explore. Evidence of this came at the recent Hirshhorn show, The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas, when three young sculptors chose pieces from the permanent collection to exhibit along side of their own work. The majority of these pieces were by virtually unknown artists, and some had not been exhibited in over twenty-five years.

The Martin Ramirez retrospective adds another fresh layer to our concept of twentieth century art. Traditionally, outsider art has been either dismissed or adored condescendingly, possibly in part because of undiscerning curators who have lumped the truly worthy together with anything that happens to be eccentric, obsessive, folksy or weird. There is also the difficulty of discussing and placing such work; as Peter Schjeldahl says, “it defeats normal criticism’s tactics of context and comparison.” The American Folk Art Museum’s extensive solo show does Ramirez the service of presenting him on his own terms and allowing the work to speak for itself. The nearly 100 pieces exhibited show a sophisticated understanding of pictorial space, a willingness to work in series with subtle variations, a deft handling of materials and an ambitious sense of scale. The impact of this show should, as Roberta Smith states, “render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.”

Ramirez’s most striking device in these works, all drawings made between 1948 and 1963, is the use of parallel lines to create planes as well as convex and concave volumes. These he combines endlessly to arrange the space within his compositions, forming the stages and tunnels his characters inhabit. These characters include cowboys, madonnas, and animals, as well as trains and cars that at times seem more like spaceships or soft, rubber versions of themselves. This cast does not enact any particular story, but weaves enigmatically through its lined world. Some compositions are more singular and centered, with a character posed importantly in a stage-like box. Others are more varied and sprawling, with collaged pieces integrated into a panoramic landscape.

Ramirez’s line system not only bends and morphs space but also creates a pulsating rhythm throughout the body of work. This rhythm is echoed in his subject matter, both in the relentless tempo of a train barreling through the American west (Ramirez’s home after emigrating from Mexico) and in the continuous procession of frames that make up a film, which is probably the source material for Ramirez’s caballeros. This shows that the artist was acutely aware of and fundamentally in tune with the pulse underlying modern life and the push towards progress, a theme that was under investigation throughout the twentieth century and includes such diverse media as early modernist painting and minimalist pulse music.

Ramirez’s use of material turns necessity and circumstance into occasion for superior craft. It seems his surfaces are patched together from “whatever was lying around,” ranging from regular white paper to brown paper bags to magazine cutouts. However, these are arranged in an intentional way, using the color, value, and shape of the paper as an integral part of the overall composition. Ramirez used a matchstick to apply his homemade medium, a mixture of melted crayons and other household items; the seductive touch and the range of value and color he coaxes out of these crude materials is remarkable. The one aspect of his work that disappoints is his rendering of some of the figures, especially their faces. All of the humans, animals, and vehicles are stylized, but typically in a way that adds whimsy to the drawings or makes sense within the stylized spaces. However, many of the faces simply read as generalized and childlike, the only scenario in which the outsider label “naïve” comes to mind.

I briefly want to mention the artist’s institutionalization in a mental hospital only to state that it is not worth mentioning; at least not as much as all the scholars and critics seem to think. In a sense, it is important for context and an autobiographical reading of the imagery, but it should not be used to set the artist apart as an outsider. After all, countless educated artists, from Van Gogh to Rothko, have had their share of psychological struggles that do not dominate the discussion of their work.

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