Paul Henry Ramirez: Abstraction’s Omnivore
by Nancy Princenthal
One of Paul Henry Ramirez’s newest series of images is called “Spin,” but not spin art in the time-honored street-fair tradition, elevated to gallery status by the likes of Walter Robinson and Damien Hirst. Ramirez’s three “Spin” paintings—actually, they are silkscreened on linen, in editions of seven—are made on static surfaces. They are attached to the wall in a manner of his own exceedingly clever invention, with big magnets mounted in turntable-like devices that allow viewers (wearing white gloves, please) to easily turn each sizable square work around, leaving it in the position of their choice. Several things are thereby made possible, including new orientations of the bold black-and-white graphic elements that comprise each composition and changing relationships among the works in the series. Novel balances of color (backgrounds are potent shades of red, pink and orange), shape and line emerge.
On a more theoretical level, several ideas are put in motion. One is that chance has an important role in determining the forms of art, a notion that has tickled artists’ fancies from Duchamp and the Dadaists forward. Another (related to the first by the risk it entails) is that artists can profitably challenge their own authority by inviting audience participation (relational aesthetics, anyone?). Other questions follow: How does art get spun, like political events, by critics and curators, dealers and collectors, viewers and peers? Can it be freed from a buzzing nimbus of current theories and historical precedents, and restored to the realm of sensual pleasure? Ramirez seems happy to have all these competing inquiries circulate at once, none answered definitively.
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1963, he came to New York in 1991 and, like Warhol, found employment doing design work for fancy department stores—in Ramirez’s case, window displays for Macy’s, Takashimaya and Henri Bendel (the latter two quite luxe). The sources he freely acknowledges range from Robert Motherwell to Robert Mapplethorpe (both for compositional strategies, Ramirez says, specifically the muscular pressure of organic form against the constraints of rectangular support surfaces); he also mentions Richard Serra, again for the use of space (which is rather more aggressive than Ramirez’s own). Other easily discernible influences include Philip Guston and Carroll Dunham, Disney and Dr. Seuss. The paintings of the ungovernable Peter Saul come to mind. Ramirez also notes the importance to his artistic development of personal events both painful and joyous (an extended struggle with Lyme disease in the early 1990s brought new sensitivity to bodily reality; earlier, a transformative religious experience did the same for his spiritual life). Ramirez has incorporated music, dance, lighting and seating elements into his work; more often than not, his exhibitions have involved site-specific components painted directly on gallery walls, always in relation to works on canvas. Like many artists of his generation, he recognizes no boundaries between fine and applied art, high and low.
This is true despite the sternly disciplined abstract style he has developed. Ramirez’s current vocabulary, pared down from earlier work, is constituted of cleanly defined geometric forms made sexually suggestive, subtly, by their proportions, color, and disposition. Paired circles flank slender shafts. Big circles are tipped by smaller ones. The curly, hair-fine black lines and fleshy pink forms that once flourished still occasionally appear, but, at present, regular shapes and bright, inorganic colors predominate. Flawless curves, razor sharp edges, and complex color combinations are the result of a process that is dauntingly exacting. Sketches proceed to graphed drawings, to outlines on vellum, and to painstaking transfers to canvas, where each contour is taped off before painting; the artist says he draws every line eight times. Chromatic choices are tested using a vast archive of paint swatches he has prepared with the care of a biochemist. His arsenal of brushes, and the orderliness with which he maintains it, is enviable.
If the rigor of Ramirez’s process is evident in its results, so is an exceptionally mischievous visual imagination. In a recent series called “Chunk,” much of the white space that once dominated his canvasses has been taken over by irregular but rectilinear fields of brown and black. His long experience integrating paintings into architectural contexts has contributed, Ramirez notes, to the geometrization of his vocabulary, but he also says the brown and black forms are anthropomorphic. With that permission, it is possible to see a kinship between these highly abstracted figures and Scott Burton’s late quasi-figurative, crypto-homoerotic chairs and benches, which have a similarly straight-edged stylization. Flowering between the dark right-angled dominant forms in the “Chunk” paintings are dazzling bouquets of breast-like blooms painted in birthday-party varieties of blue, red, pink, lavender and yellow, plus one or two in fleshy shades of pink. Each sunny orb is topped with a smaller circle in a contrasting color: a cheerful little nipple. All are tethered to the canvasses’ edges by lines that draw them into teardrops, and make them slightly resemble balloons—buoyant, helium-filled ones when they tug upward on their strings, swollen water balloons when they droop. As the lines gather between the viselike grip of the black and brown shapes, they form dazzling, narrowly ruled stripes. Ironically reductive representations of gender and race viewed from one perspective, the “Chunk” paintings are irresistible formal inventions seen from another—and fully engrossing in either case.
In early 2010, three works from the “Chunk” series were incorporated into an installation Ramirez was commissioned to make for the Newark Museum in New Jersey. Called “Blackout,” it covered the walls of a Beaux-Arts interior courtyard. Each of 12 recessed niches was painted one of a dozen blazing shades that included hot pink, lavender, Day-glo orange, fuchsia, lime green, red, aqua and hot mustard. The walls above these niches were painted black; for the columnar areas between them, Ramirez conceived a kind of hourglass figure, with a volume of black narrowing to a thin vertical line that poured through a long stretch of bright white and expanded below into a spreading pool of blackness. The proportions of white and black varied, creating an effect of pistons in several positions, or of keys on a calliope going up and down amid a rousing orchestration of all-stops-out color and form. A “Chunk” painting hung in each of three niches, adding a figured melody line. Ramirez even altered the courtyard’s ring-shaped chandeliers, fitting them with varicolored light bulbs that subtly contributed to the festivity. In an interview for a catalogue (Tang 2002)1 accompanying an earlier gallery-spanning work, he said, “the installations involve a kind of touching, licking, gripping, and caressing of walls and spaces, and the forms inside each painting do the same.” Though he was describing paintings that were hairier and fleshier and, in that sense, more explicitly sensual than those in “Blackout,” the expression of physical energy has, if anything, reached a higher pitch.
By a stroke of curatorial inspiration, “Blackout” coincided with an exhibition at the Newark Museum called “Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s–50s.” Bringing together two traditions generally considered in isolation, it showcased a kind of rogue modernism on both continents, featuring artists who undertook experiments with kinetic, proto-Op, pre-installation, and early filmic variants on geometric abstraction. By turns icily elegant and endearingly funky, this wide range of work, by artists both well-known—Arshile Gorky and Louise Nevelson; Lygia Pape and Jesus Rafael Soto— and not, was a fascinating frame through which to view Ramirez’s own perception-bending engagements with three and more dimensions. It also demonstrated that Ramirez’s heritage is cross-cultural in ways much broader than family history.
Not all of Ramirez’s work aims to overtake entire galleries, floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Among his more intimate current paintings is a series called “Swash.” Executed on small canvases, some just a few inches on a side, they feature brushwork that is fluid and semitransparent. The patterns are regular but loosely drawn, and include lollipop-ish shapes in layered multitudes that also suggest flowers and, perhaps, rudimentary people; the delicate black lines of earlier paintings appear in these new works, too. Colors are less assertive than in “Chunk” or “Spin,” tending to soft shades of purple and blue. Another relatively intimate series, the “Paint Pours,” are made on circular supports with rounded edges that evoke Frisbees, though some are quite small. The association is strengthened by nested bands of color, each spinning around its own center to mildly psychedelic effect. These relatively diminutive works are freestanding but can be shown in aggregated compositions, as in the full-scale intervention installed in 2004 at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Similarly, a new series of small square paintings called “Punch,” dominated by blazing chevrons and sharing the hard lines and bright colors of the “Spin” works, can be hung in ways that create integrated wall works.
The newest of Ramirez’s ventures is glazed ceramic vases, which pick up an interest in three-dimensional form that goes back to his “100% Virgin Vinyl” sculptures, shown in 1995 at Franklin Furnace in New York. Ranging from tiny to moderate in size, subtle and richly varied in color and surface pattern, and tenderly modeled into shapes that are just barely suggestive of human form, the ceramic works are displayed on plinths in a way that, like Wallace Stevens’ famous “jar upon a hill,”2 draws together the visual landscape around them. Deceptively modest, these vases sustain Ramirez’s commitment to blurring the distinctions between applied and fine art, discrete objects and immersive environments. An artist with an omnivorous visual appetite and an extremely discerning eye, he brings equal measures of zest and refinement to his increasingly broad range of work.
1 Elevatious Transcendsualistic: A Dialogue with Paul Henry Ramirez and Ian Berry. (2002). Saratoga Springs, NY: Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.
2 Stevens, Wallace (Oct. 1919). “Anecdote of the Jar.” Poetry Magazine, 15: 1.
Note: “Anecdote of the Jar” begins, “I placed a jar in Tennessee / And round it was, upon a hill” and continues, “The wilderness rose up to it / And sprawled around, no longer wild.”