An Interview with Artist Dan Ramirez

June, 2014

JK: You created several large installations through which you continued your exploration of perception. Let’s examine the one that you created in 1996 for the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin. In this installation observers were able to participate both from outside on the sidewalk and from inside the space.

Central to the installation is the solitary figure from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a Romantic’s painting of a man standing on a rocky precipice, walking stick in hand, looking out over the vastness of the natural world. However, instead of looking out at a mist-covered landscape, your Friedrich figure faces a horizontal bank of six television monitors.

DR: Yes, and the figure is reduced to a cutout made of black laminate adhered to the window. His walking stick is painted to also resemble a blind person’s cane. Inside, the floor was covered with two tons of crushed stone that crunched under visitors’ feet.

JK: So they simultaneously experienced elements of two types of environments—naturalistic and technological. And a video camera faced the window and recorded people who looked at the figure or peered into the exhibit space.

Survoyeur installation seen from the street, Madison Art Center,
Madison, WI 1996
Survoyeur installation seen from outside the
window with woman visitor inside the space,
Madison Art Center, Madison, WI 1996

DR: Each of the tv monitors showed the identical view: the silhouette of the figure and passersby gazing at it. The title, Survoyeur, combines the idea of a figure surveying what he beholds—brought into question since his walking stick doubles as a blind person’s cane—and “voyeur” as the camera recorded viewers outside on the street who may not have realized they were being recorded. Those who came inside were often frustrated by the fact that they could not see the front of the silhouetted figure—only the figure seen again from the back.

 
Still capture from a video recording showing a viewer outside on the
street looking in at the Friedrich figure

I was fascinated by how people responded to seeing and being seen, by all the different ways they tried to interact with the figure, and how they would try to adjust themselves to the information they gained as they both experienced and actually became part of the installation.

JK: This installation led to a series of related prints. For example the serigraph entitled diptych, diptych continues your juxtaposition of Romantic imagery and Minimalist painting, once again raising questions about perception and interpretation.

DR: To enhance the contrast between the Romantic image and the reference to Minimalism, I printed the figure on plastic laminate, a substance aligned with the industrial materials of Minimalism. To my surprise and great pleasure, I discovered some fascinating things about this work after I’d finished it. The sides, top and bottom of this piece are also covered with laminate. Looking straight down at the top edge of the work, you see a strip of white laminate that ends in a small red strip. It looks just like the walking cane held by the figure. This led me to realize that the sojourner could also be seen to be holding a small version of the entire work—we just see its top edge. I love the fact that more and more possibilities emerge as I work and may even remain to be discovered some time after the work is complete.

diptych, diptych, serigraph on plastic laminate, 107 x 170 cm
(42 x 67 in), 1996
(Collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL)
 View looking down at the top edge of the serigraph diptych, diptych 

JK: The Belisarius series was in part inspired by the story of one of the greatest generals of the Roman Empire, Flavius Belisarius, and the legend that he was blinded by the Emperor Justinian, the man he served, and thus reduced to the status of a beggar.

DR: Whether apocryphal or not, the story of the blinding inspired many painters, including Jacques-Louis David in the late 18th century. Belisarius was also rumored to be part of a love triangle with his unfaithful wife and their adopted son.

The paintings in this series are primarily quiet. I’m using geometry in a simple, classical way. Due to the large scale of the painting titled Belisarius and its atmospheric passages next to the opaque white rectangles, all three large rectangles can be read as doors that might be entered.

 
Belisarius, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 2001

Again in this series, I often used the image of the white and red cane to raise questions about perception. In Belisarius: Mr. Magoo and Me, I’m remarking primarily to myself how—like Mr. Magoo who is nearsighted and constantly stumbles over things—I often stumble along in my work. Yet also like Mr. Magoo who somehow emerges from his predicaments smelling like roses, I often make unanticipated and rewarding discoveries. At times the process of making a painting feels almost magical to me.

 
Belisarius: Mr. Magoo and Me, acrylic on canvas, 132 x 132 cm
(52 x 52 in), 1999

 JK: The Songs Out of Sight series reflects your love of music as well as the synesthetic experiences one can have when listening to music or looking at art. Let’s look at one painting from this group—A Kind of Blue: In C.

DR: As both a musician and a painter, I sometimes work from a synesthetic experience I have among the elements of sound, form and color—as I did here. The title of this painting refers to Miles Davis’ celebrated album, Kind of Blue. The words in the title “In C ” refer both to the musical key signature and the color of the paint I used in this work—”c” for cobalt blue. The painting reflects my deeply felt experience of the music.

 
A Kind of Blue: In C, acrylic on canvas, 140 x 196 cm (55 x 77 in), 2001

JK: In the summer of 2002, you began what would become a series of artist residencies in Gallifa, Spain, a small town in the mountains about 25 kilometers north of Barcelona. There you worked at the Josep Llorens Artigas Foundation that was created in 1989 by Josep’s son, Joan Gardy Artigas, in his father’s honor. Josep was a world-renowned ceramicist who had collaborated with many artists, most importantly with his friend Joan Miró.

DR: Joan is also a ceramicist as well as a painter and sculptor, and he worked with Miró for twenty years. When in Gallifa in 2002, I had a large studio and beautiful apartment up in the mountains. I was greatly inspired by the landscape and the quality of the light.

During my first residency, I produced three suites of acrylic paintings on paper that led of a series of paintings made when I returned home. The paintings were named for the musical composition Nuages—or Clouds—written by guitarist/composer Django Reinhardt.

Looking at the incredible view out my Gallifa studio window, I decided to work in a more traditional landscape style. In Nuages La Luz: Dos, I actually created a horizon line, making the top of the painting atmospheric and the bottom very tactile through thick brush strokes.

 
Nuages La Luz: Dos, acrylic on panel, 30.5 x 30.5 cm (12 x 12 in),
2001

In another work from this group, the title Nuages Ebm is a play on the key signature E flat minor. An atmospheric strip is contrasted with more opaque areas—especially the highly textural wide black bar. So again I’m questioning the nature of the space in these paintings.

Nuages Ebm, acrylic and iron oxide on canvas,
140 x 140 cm (55 x 55 in), 2001
 JK: A second residency in Gallifa led to series of tall vertical paintings inspired by a 12th century crucifix in the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. Called Batlló Majesty, this crucifix is thought to symbolize Christ’s triumph over death.
 
Batlló Majesty, wood and polychrome tempura,
156 x 119 x 20.5 cm (61 x 47 x 8 in), mid-12th century
(National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain)
Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batlló_Majesty

DR: I was struck by the beauty and physical presence of this crucifix, by its verticality, its objecthood. In response I painted a series of tall, thin works and called them La Luz or The Light. I was continuing to explore the color blue, trying to get as much light from it as I could. And of course blue suggests a celestial realm. I was also continuing to play with the idea of light as a metaphor for knowledge and its contrast with faith, which is based on belief.

La Luz #1, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 63.5 cm
(72 x 25 in), 2002
La Luz #2, acrylic on
canvas, 183 x 46 cm
(72 x 18 in), 2002
La Luz #7, acrylic on
canvas, 183 x 46 cm,
(72 x 18 in), 2002-03

JK: You created a third series, La Duquesa de la LuzThe Duchess of Light—during another residency in Gallifa in 2005.

DR: This series was inspired in part by one of the paintings of the 13th Duchess of Alba done by Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

 
The White Duchess by Francisco Goya, oil on
canvas, 194 x 130 cm (76 x 51 in), 1795
Image source: http://www.wikiart.org/en/search
/the%20white%20duchess/1

JK: Once again you combine representational elements with a few large minimal forms.

DR: I was moved by the color and the contrasts of light and dark in this work as well as by the beautiful paint handling of the white dress—its texture and brilliance. In my painting, La Duquesa de la Luz en Gallifa, I used the red, black and white of the portrait. I let some of the paint bleed into the canvas, suggesting the black of her hair.

 
La Duquesa de la Luz en Gallifa I, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 2005

JK: This series also includes some small works composed partially or wholly from digital prints. Let’s look at a few of them.

DR: In #5, the section that looks like a standing figure is actually derived from a photograph I took of hair on my forearm. I cropped the photo and combined two copies to create a mirror image, thereby inserting myself into the story. In Desnudo (Nude) I incorporated a tree outside my studio window and dressed it in red to create a sensual figure-like image.

 La Duquesa de Gallifa #5, acrylic and digital print on
paper, image size 18 x 18 cm (7 x 7 in), 2005
 La Duquesa de Gallifa: Desnudo, digital print,
image size 18 x 13 cm (7 x 5 in), 2005

JK: You also made some ceramic works during this residency.

DR: I worked under the direction of Joan Artigas who had collaborated with Joan Miró on his ceramic works. The work ¡Oh! Goya! Can you hear her now? resembles the parts of the ear. Goya was deaf when he visited his muse, the 13th Duchess of Alba. Joan liked this work because he felt it had some of Miró’s playfulness.

 
¡Oh! Goya! ¿Puedes escucharme
ahora? (Oh! Goya! Can you hear
her now?), 
ceramic, 63.5 x 38 cm
(25 x 15 in), 2005  
La Duquesa de Gallifa en la Piedra I, ceramic,
38 x 38 cm (15 x 15 in), 2005

JK: You seem to have been very inspired by the times you’ve spent in Spain.

DR: When I first went to Barcelona in 2000, I felt remarkably at home both culturally and as an artist. I had grown up in an Irish-Polish neighborhood where I was the only Latino kid around. My father’s side of the family was mainly truck drivers as I myself had been for 13 years. By the time I went to Spain, I had developed a strong identity as an artist. I had read a lot about the history and culture of Spain, and I was very moved by the art and architecture I saw there. I loved the Romanticism I saw in the work of Goya. In Spain I felt that I was connecting with a more gentle, polished side of myself.

JK: The Cathedral of Saint Mary in Toledo, Spain, a magnificent example of Gothic architecture, inspired another series of work.

DK: Once again I’m responding to the tierceron-star vaulting structure, the light, and the ambiance of these beautiful cathedrals. I tried to capture the play of light and darkness.

 
La Reina de Luz, oil on paper, image size 33 x 51 cm
(13 x 20 in), 2007-2008
(Collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL)

The use of blue is again a reference to celestial blue.

w
Arco IV, oil and collage on museum board, image size
19 x 15 cm ( (7.5 x 6 in), 2007
Arco VII, oil and collage on museum board, image size
23 x 20 cm (9 x 8 in), 2007

 

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