Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles
Through December 31, 2017
Robert Berman Gallery
Through October 14, 2017
By Shana Nys Dambrot
It’s all about context. Already one of the most anticipated venue debuts in recent memory, the new ICALA (Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles) was never going to want for attention. But having its first exhibitions open in the context of the Getty PST LA/LA gave the fledgling kunsthalle (formerly known as the Santa Monica Museum of Art) a dually expanded platform for its remarkable inaugural. Martin Ramirez: His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation presents work by a gifted, untrained, and incarcerated Mexican immigrant who died in California in 1963, but whose legacy is undergoing a fresh examination. There is also the context of the current enthusiasm for Outsider art, and a scholarly movement underway to clarify and redefine the parameters of a loose genre based partly on aesthetics, but largely on metrics of education and psychology. And let us not forget the context of the present political climate in the United States with regards to unpacking the immigrant experience in America. Not for nothing, but the press materials are available in both English and Spanish.
With aspects the evoke Medieval or pre-Raphaelite folk art, Ramirez drawings have both a monkish pensiveness, and a childlike fascination with pattern and character. It’s intensely psychological, and yet frequently delightful, imparting an understanding of the artist’s battle between fear and hope, frustration and imagination. Even without knowing the circumstances of the artist’s life and death, these emotion radiate off them like light in the dark. It’s the kind of work that makes viewers speak in hushed tones, as they are moved to solve its puzzles with urgency. It is difficult to decode where architecture ends and abstract pattern begins, like some German Expressionist take on Foucault. His imagery and compositional structures are institutional, maze-like, such as a temple or a castle, often featuring a central figure of a mounted rider, a knight errant on horseback ready to… do what exactly? There’s nowhere to go, except inside his mind.
Ramirez’s orchestration of lines, sinuous and angular, nested and scoping, are more than depictive or descriptive, they are also in a way a stand-in for both written and spoken language. By all accounts English and/or speech in general were challenges for him, and yet he possessed every human’s impulse for communication, for expressing his wavelength. He worked in mostly a fairly limited palette but created unlimited texture from the materials and mediums he found, culled, scavenged, was gifted, and in some cases improvised for himself out of things like potato and ash — a fitting heir to the Arte Povera movement of the 20th century. Elements of newspaper collage and clipped magazine pictures jostle the viewer’s attention at just the right moments, breaking the trance with reminder that the contemporaneous real world outside Ramirez’s cell was 20th-century America, and not in fact 14th-century Spain.
Meanwhile across town at Robert Berman Gallery, a long-planned installation of Ramirez’s work forms a capsule exhibition inside his larger PST contribution, on view through October 14. Comprising about a dozen small-scale masterpieces, what it lacks in sweep of survey, it more than makes up for in focus and intimacy. Installed as a sort of quiet antechamber to the back room’s operatic PST LA/LA/LA, this show within a show highlights and prefaces the long-ago and not-so-far-away ancestry of where this cross-border history started. In the broader setting of the rest of the show’s riot of color and exuberant, original freedom-seeking, remembering the life and times of Martin Ramirez tethers the Chicano experience to the foundations of immigration and cultural cross-pollination, state politics and individual identity. In both installations, single figures appear in Ramirez’s work here and there — asleep, dead, or at a tiny desk at the heart of a labyrinth. These motifs tend to reinforce the problematic label of Outsider, which both engenders and precludes true equal footing inside art history. Yet Ramirez’s experiences of racism, economic justice, and mental illness were all too real, and ignoring that narrative suppresses his experiences, which are the subject matter of his prolific output — and so salient to the wide net cast by PST LA/LA.
All the ICALA events throughout the run of the show. FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/pg/theicala/events/