ICA LA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)
Martin Ramirez: His Life In Pictures, Another Interpretation
(September 9—December 31, 2017
The Martin Ramirez story is at once unusual for and typical of “outsider artists.” Typical, in that his artistic output was realized at particularly far remove from any sort of self-conscious artistic discourse; unusual, in that the work itself, while exhibiting the graphic obsessiveness we expect, even cherish, in outsider art, has a stylistic and thematic complexity to it—one carefully but dramatically unpacked in this survey of the artist’s work. Pictorially, Ramirez knew what he was doing, or at least what he wanted to do.
Ramirez also knew from experience the pictorial traditions from which he was working, again as demonstrated by the show. A day laborer in California and ultimately a ward of the state, in his spirit Ramirez never left his native Jalisco. Trapped in an asylum with a (dubious) diagnosis of schizophrenia, the nearly mute artist-despite-himself responded to the available visual culture—that is, mid-century American popular imagery—but based his iconography on a range of references to his birthplace.
A survey of someone like Ramirez falls readily into thematic distinctions even as it resists chronology: much of his work is dated vaguely, but its subject matter and formal qualities present themselves forcefully. Ramirez’s work has been accessible to the American art world since the 1970s, and its formal strengths and subjective peculiarities have long been acknowledged; indeed, they fairly leap at you from every single one of his works. But only in careful, if expansive, selections like this does his art radiate such pathos. Fully worthy of the scholarship lavished on him here, Ramirez emerges as anything but a naïf. His exposure to fine art was limited, of course, but he clearly had a sense of his own style as a method of self-expression, The segment of the show isolating his “abstractions”—linear structures absent any figurative reference—argues, persuasively, as much.
Ramirez’s style, notably consistent and even more notably inimitable, depends on the repetition of large, curved lines (or, less often, short, straight ones) rendered in graphite and used to define space and volume. These elaborations contain his referential motifs in various ways, defining spaces around them, entrapping them, underscoring them, and generally serving to elaborate pictorial space in a deeply respectful, almost votive manner. Such reverential decoration bespeaks Ramirez’s sources in Mexican religious art of various kinds, more insistently than do the occasional appearances of religious images themselves. Ramirez lavished the same attention on depictions of deer or caballeros as he did on the Virgen, almost as if averring that the world, too, is holy.
The volume and ambition of Ramirez’s output clearly betrays the fate of someone with too much time on his hands, forced to live institutionally, far from his home and family, whether or not he was actually schizophrenic. He was not a lucky man. But he was a gifted and resourceful one, arguably even more so than most of the other artists we now celebrate for their mental-hospital mastery. This survey succeeds in its ultimate argument: Ramirez was one of the great artists of the last century.