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the cat on top of it all

December 12, 2008
click on image to view slideshow

click on image to view slideshow

(NYTimes) [Outsider artist Martin] Ramírez had an indelible style built on a supreme sense of economy and shot through with a mix of sly humor and sunny optimism that coats deeper, darker feelings. He had his own way with materials and color — buoyed by an unerring sensitivity to the power of blank paper — and a cast of unforgettable characters, including mounted caballeros, levitating Madonnas, and deer and dogs on high alert. But most of all Ramírez had his own brand of pictorial space, which he regulated with rhythmic systems of parallel lines, curved and straight. He played spatial illusion as if it were an accordion, expanding and contracting it in a mesmerizing play of stasis and movement.

He might orchestrate the curved lines into stepped, hivelike hills punctuated by dark tunnels where ornate trains and buglike cars or buses chug in or out along extravagantly banked roadways or railroad beds defined by further lines. The straight lines might form fluted, beautifully shaded proscenium stages that bring to mind old-time movie screens. Here we usually find the caballero aiming his pistol in one direction while pointing his reined-in steed in another, as if ready to wheel and dash to safety. This character is Ramírez’s signature motif: the show begins with a posse of 19 caballero drawings, double- and triple-hung on a single wall.

Ramírez’s shaded lines segue effortlessly from abstract to descriptive and back again, just as his shapes are constantly being adjusted or assigned new roles. When shaded ellipses crown the prosceniums they suggest stage lights; in landscapes they read as cactuses. In one drawing, they are clustered together to form an enormous mountain, complete with a tunnel, that glows from within like a giant jukebox.

Rhythmic surfaces, plunging spaces and various modes of transportation (boats also shunt out of the tunnels, turning the roadways into canals) make visual the themes of distance and separation, isolation and longing. In one drawing, a tiny woman appears at the bottom of a long corridor-like path, while a small man is far above her, boxed in by lines.

Sometimes the prosceniums are inhabited by a man who has shed his sombrero and ammo belts and sits quietly at a table writing letters or perhaps waiting for inspiration to strike. In one of the show’s best drawings, the sides of the stage resemble half-open shutters through which this man is seen against a dense black background. The velvety field is broken by a locomotive trundling over a little hillock, like an ever-present memory — an emblem of the way Ramírez revisited his life through his art. (Read full article)

View more of Ramirez’s work, and read an article about the discovery of more of his late work.

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