An Interview with Artist Dan Ramirez

June, 2014

JK: You continued a religious theme in your series Celestial Citya term often used to refer to heaven.

DR: In this work I’m giving visual form to my responses to Gothic architecture and to the heavenly city that Gothic architecture is aligned with. These paintings also reflect my continuing interest in the religious music of Olivier Messiaen, in this case his 1963 work, Couleurs de la Cité Céleste.

JK: Certainly Gothic cathedrals are one of the greatest achievements of medieval technology. Based on geometric proportions, their soaring vertical interiors and large stained glass windows create luminous environments—as you do in these very large paintings.

Celestial City X, acrylic on shaped canvas, 244 x 310 cm (96 x 122 in), 1983
(Collection Moraine Valley Community College, Palos Hills, IL)

DR: I drew hundreds of variations on these forms, feeling my way through the kind of space I associated with churches and developing a structure to elicit deep space. I focused in particular on one of the structures found in Gothic churches—the tierceron-star vault.

Example of tierceron-star vaulting system,
Exeter Cathedral, Devon, UK
Image source:

With these paintings I was creating spatial maps of linear and curvilinear architectural space filled with light. To me these spaces represented something of the unknown, something you’re drawn to explore physically and emotionally.

Celestial City IX, acrylic on shaped canvas, 244 x 310 cm (96 x 122 in), 1983
(Collection San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX)

DR: I continued to explore the form of the tierceron-star vault in a large commissioned work in glass.

JK: Unfortunately due to strong differences of opinion between you and the board of directors who commissioned the work as to how the work should be illuminated, you chose to have your name removed from it.

DR: They wanted to light it from behind with 150 fluorescent tubes, and when I saw it with all the lights on, all I could think was, “Jukebox!” Because much of the glass was broken when the work was stored, I never had it returned to me.

Glassworks, stained glass, aluminum, rosewood and fluorescent lighting,
274 x 366 x 61 cm (108 x 144 x 24 in), 1985
(Formerly in the collection of Metropolitan Structures Commission, Frito-Lay,
Plano, TX; work subsequently destroyed)

JK: Inspired once again by the music of Messaien, you returned to right-angled forms.

DR: In the very large work, Contemplation of the Father, a title taken from Messiaen’s Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus, I used a format borrowed from music to deal with religious subject matter. I introduced a graphing element—the staff ledger lines from musical notation—that continues across and visually links the five canvases. A black vertical bar moves from one canvas to the next and increases in size with each one. The white areas are painted on gessoed canvas, while the other elements are painted directly on the raw canvas.

JK: It feels like we go from a fairly closed to a very open space as we move across the canvases. It also looks as though we begin with window openings in an otherwise opaque white plane and end with an unidentified object hovering in deep space.

TC1: Variation #1 (Contemplation of the Father), acrylic on canvas, overall size 216 x 775 cm (85 x 305 in), 1982

DR: In the first panel these “windows” are actually small versions of several of my previous paintings. They are also like notes going up and down a musical staff. The small image in the upper left is based on my earlier print, The Contemplation of the Father. It functions like a musical key signature, and its title becomes the title of the entire work. The black bar that changes across the canvases can be thought of as a developing musical and visual theme. By the fifth canvas, the black bar is large and frontal—as if it’s about to leave the space.

JK: Perhaps a metaphor for transcendence? —appropriate to Messaien’s religious beliefs.

TC1: Variation #1 (Contemplation of the
Father 1),
 acrylic on canvas, 216 x 155 cm
(85 x 61 in), 1982
 TC1: Variation #1 (Contemplation of the
Father V)
, acrylic on canvas, 216 x 155 cm
(85 x 61 in), 1982

JK: Your next series, Veritas/Lumen/Res or Truth/Light/Object, is filled with ambiguities of form and space.

DR: I have always loved the Necker cube illusion, and how its planes appear to occupy different spatial positions as we gaze at it.

JK: The cube pictured in the middle, the Necker cube, will alternately appear to us like the image to its left or the one to its right. You frequently present the viewer with diverse kinds of spatial ambiguities, making us question the nature of your forms, where they are located in space and how they function in the composition.

Necker Cube optical illusion
Image source:

DR: For me the spatial illusions and ambiguities I use are ultimately metaphors for point of view. Our multiple points of view challenge ideas about what is real, what is true, what can we know with certainty.

In Veritas/Lumen/Rex IX, the apparent nature of the forms changes according to where we direct our focus. For example the atmospheric area to the top right of the large green shape is seen as located behind the shape, but at the bottom of the canvas, this insubstantial area becomes solid and textural and is seen as in front of the large shape. A thin vertical line appears to enclose the side plane of the green form. Yet it continues down to help create a shadow box at the bottom of the canvas, an area that suggests possible entry into deep space.

Veritas/Lumen/Res IX, acrylic on canvas,
244 x 152 cm (96 x 60 in), 1986
(Collection of the National Museum of
Mexican Art, Chicago, IL)

The word lumen—or light—is often used as a metaphor for knowledge or truth. Yet in these paintings their “light” does not give us certainty about their natures.

Veritas/Lumen/Res X, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 152 cm
(72 x 60 in), 1986
(Borg-Warner Collection)

JK: In your 1989 series Las Crucis—or The Cross—you used a variety of materials to help you create visual metaphors.

DR: The Las Crucis series deals with the crucifixion and resurrection. On one hand, I am dealing fairly literally with the ideas of crucifixion and burial by using lengths of wood and thick layers of dirt. Yet I also incorporate gradated washes that lighten towards the top of the canvas. These create atmosphere and an illusory space that might suggest salvation or passage into another realm.

La Crucis I, wood, acrylic, dirt and
bolts on canvas, 244 x 122 cm
(96 x 48 in), 1989
La Crucis III, wood, acrylic, dirt
and bolts on canvas, 244 x 122 cm
(96 x 48 in), 1989

JK: And the painting from this series titled simply b?

DR: I’m dealing with the idea of being—what does it mean, “to be?” If you look at this work from the side, the painting literally resembles the small letter “b.” The rounded, protruding form to me represents a pupae, which is a metaphor for transformation, in this context through the resurrection.

b, wood, acrylic, dirt, bolts and panel
on canvas, 244 x 132 x 81 cm
(96 x 52 x 32), 1989

With Nox Volatus or Night Flight I’m treating the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection more abstractly. The wood and bolts are clearly earthly objects, yet the bolts also glimmer like stars in the night sky. This painting is intended to suggest the possibility of leaving this realm for another.

Nox Volatus, oak, bolts, graphite and latex on masonite, 244 x 345 x 20 cm
(96 x 136 x 8 in), 1990

JK: In 1995 you made a series of self-portraits that are rich in metaphor and double entendre. And once again you confront the idea that a Minimalist painting represents nothing beyond its literal presence.

DR: I also continued to explore perception and how your point of view helps determine what you perceive. Really at their core, these self-portraits reflect my own personal concerns about how I’m perceived or understood—both by myself and by others.

In this series large digital prints were mounted onto very thick museum board and laminated with a thin matte film. In Snow Blind the monochromatic image has several hand-colored elements while the right side is painted white with a large red stripe.

There are many references and possible interpretations in the Self-Portraits. The idea of simultaneity has always been important in my work, and I enjoy juxtaposing one thing against another. In Snow Blind I am the musician who holds the instrument—a bass—the instrument that I have played for many years. The bow I hold is painted like a blind person’s cane. Does the cane suggest limits to what we can perceive or understand or perhaps taking things on blind faith? Am I rendered snow blind by the large expanse of white with its vertical red stripe that together read like a Minimalist painting? I even thought of the stick as a magic wand, perhaps a source of creation!

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

JK: And the self-portrait B Flat?

DR: This work deals with perception, illusion and touch. B flat is, of course, a key signature in music. Is the painting flat as well?  It doesn’t appear to be so. The musician holds his bow—again a blind person’s cane—and the sense of touch is especially important for the blind. The image of the b flat is actually flat, the painted areas giving the illusion that it is raised, perhaps like braille. In my work I like to provide many possible interpretations for both myself and the viewer.

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