Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

Appealing Biography
Joseph Mosconi

For those who are wary of the appeal to biographical detail—the childhood trauma alleged to inaugurate an artist’s work, the personality trait supposedly visible in the hand drawn line—the press release for Aurie Ramirez’s recent show at the Jack Hanley Gallery in Los Angeles may give one pause: “Aurie has a condition that shares many characteristics with autism. Notably, she both speaks and writes in a language of her own devising.” Such revelations can significantly alter the critical reception of an artist’s work. Most critics might read these words and immediately assume that the artist is being positioned in the contentious field of outsider art. Yet, if Aurie Ramirez cannot be considered an outsider or self-taught artist—and I don’t believe she can—the question becomes just how notable such biographical details are and what bearing they might have on the critical consideration of her artistic practice.

Over the past decade, Ramirez has been creating a series of sugary watercolours featuring a recurring cast of fanciful dandies. The figures index a number of popular, historical, and literary sources. What appear at first to be the visages of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss resemble, on closer inspection, not members of KISS so much as comical harlequins or wispy Punchinellos. The stark black and white makeup of the 1970s metal gods is diluted by the soft pastels of a Crayola rainbow. Androgynous gentlefolk of the late nineteenth century, made up like clowns, in pinstripes and formalwear, take tea with clock (or perhaps scale)-faced fools. They sit like psychedelic Prousts on chaise longues, nibbling madeleines and staring straight ahead. Behind them, bedazzled moon-men float in the atmosphere, weeping sapphires and diamonds. And yet, amongst the saccharine, these candy-coated paintings betray a subtle hint of darkness.

In some of the watercolours, the figures appear in various states of undress, the fleshy colour of their bodies clashing with the multicolour of their faces. What appear to be innocent depictions of kisses or the playful touching of cheeks hint at more adult activity. Indeed, in a few paintings, the little Victorian vaudevillians kneel at the feet of nude female bodies, sucking their breasts, while others fellate anonymous, oddly scarred phalluses. The figures are always precisely posed, on beds or on couches, in positions familiar from pornographic magazines and centrefold spreads. Despite this, there is something almost classical, not crude, in their poses—as if Ramirez were updating Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) for the Playmate set.

In one particular work featured at the Jack Hanley Gallery, the body of the harlequin female has literally disintegrated. The figure’s head, torso, waist, ankles, feet, and what appear to be the hands (but might be a second pair of feet) are divided into six separate watercolours and hang in the approximately correct anatomical position. Framed and isolated on the gallery wall, the watercolours take on a pseudo-scientific quality, as if each portion of the body had been prepared for dissection and analysis only to end up on display in a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. The claw-like hands and feet, distinguishable only by their placement relative to the figure’s waist and torso, resemble nothing so much as the front and hindquarters of an animal, invoking the vogue for human oddities that swept the United States during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The clownish nature of the female figure’s face only enhances the sense that she may be a member of a carnival sideshow, the successor to the Wunderkammer, where a magician has sawed her body into bits.

In the past, an artist like Aurie Ramirez might have been allotted the “visionary,” “outsider,” or “self-taught” label, both for the apparently unschooled, informal quality of her work and the distinct fact of her mental disability. Such labels are contentious and difficult to define. For instance, what should one make of an artist such as Joseph Cornell—self-taught for all intents and purposes, but also entirely accepted by the mainstream art world? Or the late work of Willem DeKooning, created while the artist was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease?1 Too often the boundaries of the outsider and self-taught genres are assumed to be static, while critics rely on the formal qualities of the work to define the field. Terms such as “childlike,” “handmade,” “crafted,” and “low-tech” often appear in the literature and reviews that accompany shows by outsider and self-taught artists. The art is assumed to have a genre style: crude but possessing a simple beauty, unfinished but sweetly naïve.

But if, like pornography, outsider art is easier to recognize than it is to define, what happens when recognizable distinctions become increasingly difficult to sustain? Many young artists, perhaps drawn to the freedom from art history and institutional constraints that outsider and self-taught artists are assumed to enjoy, have adopted a style that pays homage to—and in many respects is indistinguishable from—celebrated outsider artists like Henry Darger, Grandma Moses, Martín Ramirez, or Adolf Wölfli. But unlike the modernist artists, who found value in the arts of the “primitive” and the “insane” only where the art shared a resemblance to the visual concerns of modernism,[2 the current crop of young artists look to biographical detail and life story for inspiration. Where the concern for formalism has vanished, a romantic notion of a life free from history has taken its place.

Biographical narrative can be seductive. This is especially true for dealers and collectors interested in the fraught community of outsider and self-taught art. The personal incidents, class features, racial markers, and mental or physical disabilities of an artist’s private life are often scrupulously researched by eager collectors looking for a trace of the “authentic.” Often, this trace becomes the crux upon which self-taught and outsider art enters the marketplace. Such rhetoric has been justly criticized in recent years. Still, dealers and gallerists know the value of a well-told and eccentric biography.

After all, aren’t artists like Raymond Pettibon, or more recently someone like Dash Snow, also fetishized partly for their social phobias or extreme lifestyles? In both cases, the appeal to biographical authenticity partly defines their artistic practice. The curators of the 2006 Whitney Biennial stressed this perceived authenticity by noting Snow’s complete participation in the romantic excess of his “vie bohème.” In the case of Pettibon, a carefully historicized tale of punk ethos and obscurantist scribbling, coupled with a real or imagined case of agoraphobia, has contributed to the mystique that surrounds the artist. One might characterize such narrative production as a form of stealth marketing. Call it the creative maintenance of the pathological.

Matthew Higgs, who guest-curated the show at the Jack Hanley Gallery, has been careful not to present the work of Aurie Ramirez as a species of outsider or self-taught art. Indeed, such terms would not accurately describe Ramirez’s history or practice. Ramirez is one of many artists associated with an Oakland institution called Creative Growth Art Center, whose stated mission is to serve “physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled adult artists, providing a stimulating environment for artistic instruction, gallery promotion and personal expression.” At Creative Growth, Ramirez creates work in a studio environment with other artists, takes courses from professional art instructors, and comes into contact with contemporary visiting artists such as Dave Muller and Karen Kimmel. What is most striking about Creative Growth is its purely institutional character; it is entirely plugged in to the contemporary art world and takes a great deal of care not only to offer a creative environment for its students but to direct their professional careers. One could say that the legacy of outsider and self-taught art is only one among many discourses, including modernist art, contemporary art, and popular culture, with which the artists at Creative Growth are engaged.

In a few of Aurie Ramirez’s latest watercolours, the familiar harlequins have disappeared entirely. In their place one finds swirling cupcakes, gaudy ice cream cones, and strangely human-looking hot dogs. The food seems somehow mid-century, as if it waltzed out of an animated fast food ad at a drive-in theatre, bright and happy and ready to be eaten. The brushstrokes are lighter, the lines more hastily drawn, the ubiquitous pinstripes replaced by ovals. In others, runic alphabetic characters snake down the side of the paper, perhaps forming sentences in the artist’s private language. Such images are inexplicable. But the knowledge that Ramirez has a mental disability is no more helpful here than the fact that she is a woman; that she came of age in the late 1970s; that she lives in Oakland; or that she is Filipina-American. Which is to say, it is just one of many factors—not exclusive to specificity of form, agency, identity, or history—that one must consider when engaging with her work.

  1. See Timothy Buckwalter, “Outsiders In: Creative Growth Center in Oakland,” The East Bay Monthly, (October, 2005) for a brief discussion of DeKooning’s outsider status and its bearing on Aurie Ramirez.
  2. Charles Russell, “Finding a Place for the Self-Taught in the Art World(s),” in Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art, ed. Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001).

Image: Aurie Ramirez, Ice Cream, detail. Courtesy of the Jack Hanley Gallery

About the Author

Joseph Mosconi is a writer and linguist who lives in Los Angeles. He has work forthcoming in the poetry journal Primary Writing. Excerpts from an essay on the OuLiPo and their influence on contemporary writing will appear in a collection entitled The nOulipian Analects, forthcoming on Les Figues Press. He currently works at Google, Inc.

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