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Immigration, poverty, mental illness and art

Review by Amy Muldoon | May 4, 2007 | Page 9

The Art of Martín Ramírez, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City through May 13. Visit www.folkartmuseum.org for more information.

MEXICAN-AMERICAN artist Martín Ramírez is emerging from obscurity as one of the great masters of drawing in the 20th century. For artists like Ramírez who have fallen into the "outsider" box--those with no formal training, often socially isolated, mentally ill, forgotten, non-white--the myth of pure genius is even more rigidly observed.

Thanks to a brilliantly curated show at the American Folk Museum, Ramírez's work is back in the public eye and re-establishing the importance of history and biography in art making.

Ramírez's obsessively repetitive lines construct spaces that are both geographical maps and abstract spaces. Hills, train tracks and tunnels dominate his landscapes, stripped down to their most basic elements generating driving rhythms and constant motion. Because color is rarely used, the topographical rendering of space flips forward and backward, telegraphing unease and dislocation.

In many works, particularly figures of cowboys or a seated man, the viewer is instructed exactly where to look with rigidly drawn frames--like a proscenium of a stage outlining the action. Place, confinement and distance are major themes throughout his work, reflecting the experience of being an itinerant immigrant worker. Arriving in California in 1925, Ramírez was one of thousands of Mexican laborers who came north to work on the railroads.

Left impoverished and homeless by the Great Depression, Ramírez was institutionalized for 32 years. He did receive some aid and notice from a psychologist and artist, Tarmo Pasto, who arranged shows of his work, which were largely viewed as the product of a disturbed person and less as legitimate art.

While the experience of confinement and institutionalization bears a heavy mark on his work (the hospital, in particular its redundant gun-port like windows, appear over and over), his method and subjects also draw heavily on Mexican culture and imagery.

The largest figurative works he made were of the Madonna, who is statuesque and imposing, but benevolent. She is often surrounded by floral or natural motifs, with references to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

But as the first room of the exhibit makes crystal clear, Ramirez's favorite character was the cowboy. Seventeen images, many nearly identical, hang on one wall at the entrance, and half a dozen more appear throughout. Dynamic, romantic and violent, the cowboys are almost always framed, distant from both the viewer and the artist.

Ramírez was himself a skilled rider and considered being a rider the epitome of competence and satisfaction for a man. In these works, it is possible to see a longing to go beyond the window and reclaim that life; but in reality when the offer was made to return to Mexico, Ramírez declined and stayed in the hospital.

The visual traditions of Mexican art, especially the muralist tradition of large-scale works, show through. Limited by available resources, Ramírez still found a way to construct very large drawings, even pasting scraps of paper, discarded paper bags, book pages or discarded wrappings together (with a paste from potato or bread and saliva) to make drawings that are often over five feet long or high.

In perhaps the most explanatory of his pieces, an over six-foot vertical map, a train track winds from the church in his home state to the Stockton State Hospital. The image has both the slightly whimsical tone he takes at times, and the dark mysteries of the tunnels, which appear over and over. There is no branch in the track, only the terminal points. The simultaneous presence of both speaks to his bicultural life, a more and more common experience.

Migration, distance, longing and separation are powerful themes given the current reality for millions of people crossing borders, marginalized within their new cultures. Ramírez's work is the chronicle of painful dislocation, but his perseverance and brilliance within oppressive conditions is the other half of the equation.

Luckily, curator Brooke Davis Anderson chose both a brilliant artist, and gave it the historical and social context it deserves, including commentary from historians, critics and sociologists committed to his work. It is unfortunate that common sense is groundbreaking in how museums put on shows, but it is a welcome change from the navel-gazing world of art criticism.

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