An Interview with Artist Dan Ramirez

June, 2014

Dan Ramirez was born in Chicago in 1941. He received a BA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1975 and an MFA from the University of Chicago in 1977. Ramirez taught at Columbia College, Chicago from 1977-78, the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1978-87, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987-99 where he is currently Professor Emeritus. He was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award in 2005. Ramirez’ work has been exhibited in the US as well as in Spain, Scotland, Mexico, Germany and Italy. It has been featured in over 30 solo exhibitions since 1974 and may be found in numerous private, corporate and public collections. Public collections include: in Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the David and Alfred Smart Gallery at the University of Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, the State of Illinois Collection at the James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, Illinois Benedictine College, Lisle, and Moraine Valley Community College, Palos Hills; in Arkansas, the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock; in Indiana, the Indiana Museum of Art, Indianapolis; in Missouri, the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis; in Nebraska, the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln; in Texas, the San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio; in Wisconsin, the Madison Art Center, Madison; and in Spain, the Llorens Artigas Foundation, Gallifa. Ramirez now resides in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently represented by the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago.

Julie Karabenick: Your creative process relies on a great many sources of inspiration—issues you’re contemplating, texts you’re reading, music you’re listening to and so on.

Dan Ramirez: I’ve never been someone who can begin a painting by saying, “I’ll begin with a couple of circles.” I’ve always had to have something to investigate, something to explore and get me started. It might be an essay or poem I’ve read, architecture or painting from another era, or a piece of music that moves me.

 
La Duquesa de Gallifa: XIII, acrylic and iron oxide
on panel, 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 2005

Through my work I’m always exploring the possibility of creating metaphor and narrative through geometric abstraction. I love storytelling even though I recognize that few viewers will fully appreciate how it plays out in my work. And it’s certainly not necessary to understand all the issues I’m dealing with to respond to my paintings.

JK: As we explore your many series, we will see how your emotional and intellectual responses to the things that inspire you get your creative juices flowing.

 
Tres Lamentas, oil, acrylic and iron oxide on panel, 122 x 91 cm
(48 x 36 in), 2011

DR: Quite often the issues I explore in my work have something to do with the unknown—with issues of faith or mystery, with things that lie beyond our knowledge or defy certainty.

JK: You’ve been interested in the unknown since childhood.

DR: My father was a devout Catholic, and growing up I was taught that there are things we cannot know, things we have to accept on faith.

 
The All-Powerful Word, graphite and latex on panel, 244 x 310 cm
(96 x 122 in), 1978

And the very fact that we can even think about the unknown fascinated me. I love science and can recall as a young child lying in bed and pondering the limits of what could be known. I could imagine there was no Earth, no solar system, no universe—and it would really scare me that I could think beyond this to—well, to nothing! What could nothing be? How could I even think about it?

 
Amen des Étoiles, de Planète à l’Anneau, acrylic on
shaped aluminum, 190  x 152 cm (75 x 60 in), 2007

Today I’m still preoccupied with knowing—with how we know things, with the boundaries of our knowledge, with the unknowable. The subjects that fascinate me may come from philosophy or science, religion or mysticism, literature or music, and I create visual metaphors for them through my art; I aestheticize them. I pose questions for myself, but I’m not really seeking or expecting definitive answers. Rather through my art I’m paying tribute to these subjects of contemplation.

And there’s always a very strong emotional component to how I work. I try to capture my sense of wonder, awe or uncertainty, and the finished painting is my tribute to the thoughts or experiences that initiated it.

 
Nuages Cm7, acrylic and iron oxide on canvas, 140 x 140 cm
(55 x 55 in), 2001

I love to paint, and for me there’s also mystery in the process itself. When I paint I experience a constant back-and-forth between ideas and feelings, materials and techniques. Something comes to mind that leads me to make a literal move on the canvas. As I add more elements, the painting becomes more interesting to me. New things arise, there are surprises, and I discover more and more implications of my original thoughts and intentions. It’s a continual process of creation and discovery.

 
Celestial City XIII, acrylic on shaped canvas, 244 x 310 cm (96 x 122 in), 1982

The process involves controlling, then letting go, then controlling again. The element of play is very important to me—being flexible and staying open to possibilities, to making changes and taking risks. I’m not afraid to be wrong, to make mistakes, to be criticized, and this allows me to work freely. In addition to exploring ideas, I experiment with materials and techniques, trying to continue to make paintings that seem in some way new or fresh to me and thereby broadening my range of visual tools.

 
Hourglass #1, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2001

JK: Hand in hand with your interest in knowing and its limits is your fascination with the process of perception. And by this you mean perception as we currently understand it—not an automatic, passive recording of incoming sensory information, but an active process that involves conscious awareness. When we perceive, we organize and interpret sensory experience in order to represent and understand our environments.

DR:  Yes, and what we perceive is greatly influenced by our perspective—meaning both our vantage point and our point of view. Perception is affected by our expectations, our knowledge and beliefs, our times and culture. It’s a highly complex process.

JK: In your paintings you often like to challenge viewers’ perceptions, including, for example, their perceptions of how lines and shapes behave in your paintings.

 
Epoché-L’Échange VII (diptych), acrylic, oil and iron oxide on panel,
122 x 193 cm (48 x 76 in), 2014

DR: Many of the formal techniques I use help convey a sense of mystery or uncertainty. For example, I often juxtapose gradated washes that imply a deep or ambiguous space with areas that appear shallow or impenetrable. I contrast lines and shapes that appear to melt or disappear with those that proclaim their objecthood. Needless to say I love illusion.

 
Oh! Belisarius!, acrylic on archival foam board, 27 x 33 cm (10.75 x 13 in),
2001

JK: You often paint the sides of your panels or canvases.

DR: The sides are crucial to my work. I want—as I like to think of it—to slide planes of light and space behind the surface plane, another technique to create illusory space as well as expand the painting’s possible interpretations.

 
Nieto’s Luz: Azul (3 views), acrylic and iron oxide on panel,
41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2012

JK: You’ve always worked abstractly and have generally based your work on simple geometric forms.

DR:  I’ve worked geometrically pretty much since I first began to paint, though in some series I do incorporate representational imagery.  The freedom to use representational elements when it suits me is far more important than being consistent or predictable.

 
Surveoyer, oil, acrylic and digitized image
collage on foam board and Gator board,
152 x 76 cm (60 x 30 in), 1996

However, I’ve found that it’s primarily through abstraction that I can delve most deeply into the issues that fascinate me. The abstract geometric elements I use have a kind of universal openness that allows them to be interpreted in so many ways.

 
…red bandana…, acrylic on aluminum panel,
396 x 244 cm (156 x 96 in), 2008
(McCormick Place Art Collection, Chicago, IL)

As an undergraduate I was struck by the beauty of Minimalist art, and 40 years later I still find its forms inspiring. But even as a student I rejected the idea that Minimalist art referred to nothing outside of itself, to nothing beyond its literal presence. I accepted that those who followed these ideas truly embraced them, but I felt that human perception was far too complex for works of art to be spoken about in such limited and absolute terms. To me a work of art is about much more because it is both made and perceived by human beings.

JK: How important is it to you that viewers are aware of the particular source materials that have inspired your work?

DR: To me there’s a big difference between communication and expression. I’m not trying to communicate anything to anyone. There’s nothing to “get.” I try to aestheticize ideas about the unknown, the spiritual, the sublime. If a painting of mine feels “right,” if it excites and pleases me, I want to share it. If I believe it has the power to sustain the viewer’s interest for whatever reason, then that’s enough.

 
Belisarius: Phoebe’s Foam, acrylic on canvas, 107 x 107 cm
(42 x 42 in), 1999

JK: The titles of your works may provide viewers with clues as to what was on your mind when you created them.

DR: Certainly titles can be helpful to viewers, but more importantly, titles are helpful to me. I like to explore, to stumble upon things as I work. I like surprises. Sometimes when I finish a painting, I see that I’ve arrived at a different place than I’d anticipated when I began, and I embrace that. It feels good to be able to put into words what I’ve found through the process of painting. So titles help me to both understand what I’ve done and move on to the next project. I may also change titles—sometimes even years after a painting has been completed—because I recognize implications in the work that I hadn’t earlier. Once again, I welcome surprises.

 
Sampson’s Fate, acrylic and micaceaous iron oxide on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in)2000

JK: Do you do any preliminary sketching for your paintings?

DR: In the past I used a sketchbook to develop ideas, but for the past 10 years I’ve used the computer almost exclusively to do this. When not working with my hands, I’m doing a lot of reading and configuring things in my head. I find I can really hold compositions in my mind for a long time, so that when I do go to the computer, I pretty much know what I want to see. When I begin to paint, I do make changes and adjustments, and the surface in particular may change quite a bit as I work. As I’ve said, I like to stay open.

 
Conductors Blind, acrylic and digital print on museum board , 107 x 137 cm
(42 x 54 in), 1995

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