THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Tom Mullaney
This will be a metaphysical review—my first one. The dictionary defines metaphysical as “concerned with first principles and ultimate grounds” such as Being and Time. It is also defined as being “concerned with abstract thought or subjects, such as Existence and Truth.”
Judged by those standards, Dan Ramirez is an artist who demands to be viewed in both physical as well as metaphysical terms. For 40 years, he has grappled to capture those lofty concepts in his art.
His artist statement references both a philosopher and a leading abstract expressionist painter, C.S. Pierce and Barnett Newman. Pierce speaks of “the sensuous element of thought,” while Newman says, “my life is physical and…my life is also metaphysical.”
Ramirez, according to art scholar Richard Shiff, believes that the objects he creates assume their meaning in his presence, not a meaning he instills but one that the work itself offers up to perception.
I first came in contact with Ramirez’s work in a 1979 exhibit at the Renaissance Society, soon after he received his M.F.A degree from the University of Chicago. Back then, I looked but was clueless as to the deeper meaning of those striking abstract forms.
I now see that those largely geometric shapes are at the base of all artistic practice: color, surface, shape, angle and light. Ramirez, when confronting the canvas, is grappling with those elemental forces to capture, in physical form, certain ineffable truths.
He seeks to capture approximations of Plato’s Ur-text for concepts such as Truth, Belief, Beauty and, centrally, the Divine. Lately, he has been tussling, in his mind and practice, with the concepts of Certainty and Doubt.
This book, “Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez” resulted from an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus last year, curated by Ann Sinfield. It has been published with impressive production values, from the quality of the prints, three highly-informed essays and two double-folds, to the cover jacket itself, which references the shiny, graphite surfaces of Ramirez’s paintings. Its silver, velvety sheen is a delight to touch.
As to the book’s contents, they encompass works from Ramirez’s earliest days (1975) up to 2017, the latest. While it would be satisfying to say that his works have always displayed virtuosic certainty, it would be false. Doubt has inhabited his art just as much. As a painter, Ramirez has had an equal fascination with illusion, particularly with the optical illusion of Necker’s Cube.
A viewer can discern different shapes-a cube, a square, a rhomboid-when looking at a Necker’s cube since no visual cues on the shape’s orientation are given. Similarly, Ramirez has applied washes of graphite to many of his paintings so that they assume shifting perceptions as one’s viewing angle changes.
At the start of his career, Ramirez titled works in the book “Untitled.” But, starting in 1976-77, he titled a series of works a “TL-P” number, like “TL-P 6.421” or “TL-P 6.432.” The source of this identifier is Ramirez’s deep interest in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his ideas about language’s limitations.
Another of the artist’s influences has been his Catholic roots and the teachings of Catholicism, though, like Wittgenstein, his current belief is more an overall spirituality. This can be seen in works such as The Kiss of the Infant Jesus (1980) and Contemplation of the Virgin var #3 (1981).
Dan Ramirez, Contemplation of the Virgin, var. #3, 1981. Photo by Michael Tropea
Take Contemplation of the Virgin. It consists of four rectangular panels, two white and two latex. Bisecting the work is a monofilament line running down the center, representing perhaps the Annunciation of Mary by the angel and her life’s transformation between the before and after panel.
The same bisecting monofilament line appears in the drawing, Contemplation of the Son by the Son (1980), a rich, black aquatint and electrically vibrated drypoint. One side represents the Son of God gazing on the Son of Man.
Ramirez, a bass-playing jazz musician, likes to paint while listening to music. He combined his loves of religion and music in his “Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus” series (1980), influenced by the music of the great 20th century French composer, Olivier Messiaen, a church organist when not composing.
Lately, Dan has begun creating on the computer and turned to Messiaen for a stunning series, “Aletheia and the Cosmos: An Homage to Olivier Messiaen and his ‘Visions of the Amen’” (2016-17).
My own Catholic schooling in theology and philosophy plus my love of Messiaen’s scores has guided me in looking at and partially understanding the book’s images, though that is not a prerequisite for your enjoyment.
Ramirez can paint striking images that stand apart from their religious and philosophical underpinnings. To look at Celestial City #9 (1983), Nuages: La Luz/dos (2002) and Aletheia: Kosmik Kathedral (2016) is to simply revel in the sheer power of paint to picture pure Beauty.
Dan Ramirez, Nuages: La Luz Azul en sus Ojos (Dos) (study), 2002. Photo by Eric Tadsen.
Dan Ramirez, Aletheia: Scribe’s Reveal, 2017. Photo by Eric Tadsen.
Ramirez is a master at making a disappearing line, a smudge of paint or a wash of graphite convey a world of meaning and viewing pleasure. His art is all about what Shiff calls “the primacy of experience, the sensory passion felt beyond the limits of conceptualization.”
The recent Aletheia series is a philosophic/artistic challenge to the concepts of certainty and doubt. In Aletheia: Scribe’s Reveal (2017), Ramirez, with a simple pull-back stroke, changes everything. The silver graphite stripe, which one thought captured solid, physical certainty, is revealed as not emptiness but another layer lying behind. Doubt is loosed upon our perceived reality. An illusionistic trick Ramirez must have reveled in.
Here’s a book to delight in and ponder!
“Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez” is published by the Chazen Museum of Art, 2018.
Tom Mullaney is Managing Editor of the New Art Examiner.
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