An Interview with Artist Dan Ramirez

June, 2014

JK: In 2008 you were one of 30 Chicago artists commissioned to create artworks for the McCormick Place West Building in Chicago, works that responded to Chicago’s cultural history.

DR: My eight large paintings were an homage to the work of writer Nelson Algren, specifically to his 1951 prose poem Chicago: City on the Make. Algren’s work is basically a social critique that reflects Chicago’s history of corrupt politicians and gangsters, the downtrodden and the dispossessed. However, what I was responding to was the beauty of Algren’s prose, its song-like quality, its rhythms and alliterations. My paintings were made by spraying and brushing acrylic polymers over aluminum panels.

Workers installing …green-biazed cloth… in McCormick Place
West, Chicago, Illinois, 2008
Row of Homage to Nelson Algren paintings located in the Central
Concourse of McCormick Place West, Chicago, Illinois

JK: Let’s look at two of these large works—13 feet high by 8 feet wide.

DR: Algren writes about different aspects of the city. In one passage he creates an image of gangsters and crooked politicians meeting in pool halls. The phrase “green-biazed cloth” is his reference to the fabric that covers the pool tables. I wanted to make a beautiful image out of his prose. In my painting …green-biazed cloth… I used the green of the cloth, a yellow strip referring to the lights above the pool tables, and included a gradated vertical strip to their right to create  a sense of atmosphere. In the niches in which the paintings are installed, part of each space is deeper than the walls on which the paintings are hung. The atmospheric strip gives the illusion that you could enter that deeper space through the painting.

green-biazed cloth…, acrylic on aluminum
panel, 396 x 244 cm (156 x 96 in), 2008
(McCormick Place Art Collection, Chicago, IL)
…green-biazed cloth… installed in its architectural niche

Algren talks about Calumet City, an area known for corruption and illegal activities. From there you can look across Lake Michigan to the steel refineries of Gary and Hammond. As a former steel-hauler, I had a personal association to these places and Algren’s images of them. In my painting …refineries… I conjure up the glow of molten steel and the blue of the lake.

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

JK: In 2010 we see you returning for inspiration to the music of Olivier Messaien and his composition Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau (Amen of the stars, of the ringed planet). These celestial bodies undoubtedly had religious connotations for the devout Catholic, Messaien. Your series contains both paintings and prints.

DR: The Satunarius series deals with the planet Saturn and its rings. The image of the blue rings might suggest halos. The colors red and blue are featured in these works because I’m also dealing with the phenomena of redshift and blueshift, which refer to the lower and higher frequency light waves associated, for example, with the concepts of an expanding (red) or contracting (blue) universe. The digital print Red-Blue Shift Key Signature forms the point of departure for a large group of prints.

Red-Blue Shift Key Signature, digital print on paper,
15 x 15 cm (6 x 6 in), 2010

The small images across the top of these prints function like a musical staff, a reference to Messaien’s music.

Satunarius Étude: Shift # I, digital print on
paper, 28 x 22 cm (11 x 8.5 in), 2009-10
Satunarius Étude: Shift # III, digital print on paper,
28 x 22 cm (11 x 8.5 in), 2009-10

JK: This series led to a collaboration between you and musical composer Stephen Dembski in which you produced short animations accompanied by excerpts from Dembski’s music.

DR: This is an ongoing collaboration. Steve and I are approaching this in ways similar to two jazz musicians trading solos and feeding off of one another’s responses. These initial attempts are very rudimentary. They should be considered more as preliminary sketches. As each of us learns the techniques and materials that the collaboration demands, we hope to realize larger and more sophisticated pieces.

JK: In 2011 you created another series based on Goya’s paintings of the 13th Duchess of Alba, this time his work La duquesa de Alba y su dueña (The duchess of Alba and her duenna) painted in 1795.

La duquesa de Alba y su dueña by Francisco Goya,
oil on linen, 33 x 27.7 cm (13 x 11 in), 1795
Image source:

DR: Goya was critical of some of the the abuses and hypocrisies of the priesthood. In this small painting the Dutchess of Alba shoves a red amulet—a charm to ward off evil—into the face of her duenna, La Beata, a very religious member of the older generation. I’m interested in belief systems, in what is possible to know. In this painting there is a juxtaposition of light and dark, amulet and crucifix.

JK: Pagan superstition and religious belief.

DR: In my small study of Goya’s painting, there are actually three crosses—one containing a gold strip that repeats La Beata’s cane; one made by adding a square to the right side of the painting and the crucifix itself that La Beata is holding—the number three suggesting the Holy Trinity.

Cayatena y La Beata Study, acrylic, iron oxide and digital collage
on paper, 18 x 25 cm (7 x 10 in), 2011

I did a number of variations based on this study. Here the crosses and the coloration relate back to the forms and colors of the study, the two crosses also suggesting the two figures.

Cayatena y La Beata: Diptych, acrylic and iron oxide on panel, 102 x 152 cm
(40 x 60 in), 2011

In some variations I broke up and eliminated elements of the cross, included atmospheric passages and variations on the gold vertical line.

Cayatena y La Beata var. #22, acrylic
and iron oxide on panel, 41 x 30.5 cm
(16 x12 in), 2011
Cayatena y La Beata: var. #16, acrylic
and iron oxide on paper, 66 x 48 cm
(26 x 19 in), 2011

JK: On a visit to the National Ceramics Museum in Valencia, you became quite interested in some of the ceramic tiles you saw. And as we’ve seen, you’d previously worked in ceramics while at the Artigas Foundation in Gallifa.

DR: The Spanish word “azulejo” refers to glazed ceramic tiles. With the Azulejo works I am once again challenging the idea of painting as object. I created the illusion of space in Azulejo x 2 by opening an illusory space on one side of the work.

Azulejo x 2 (three views), acrylic and iron oxide on panel, 61 x 46 x 5 cm
(24 x 18 x 2 in), 2012

JK: And here we see a blue line that raises questions about the solidity of the painting as the line traverses and appears spatially in front of an atmospheric passage that suggests depth.

Azulejo: linea azul con el espacio,
acrylic and iron oxide on panel,
61 x 46 x 5 cm (24 x 18 x 2 in), 2012

You recently had an exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago called [Epoché] Recent Paintings. The term “epoché” is an important notion in Phenomenology, a philosophical tradition that focuses on conscious experience from a subjective point of view. So once again, you are exploring ideas about the complexities of perceptual experience.

Epoché: L’Échange IV, oil on panel,
acrylic and iron oxide on panel, 51 x 41 cm
(20 x 16 in), 2013

DR: Epoché was originally a Greek term meaning abstention or a suspension of judgment. An important idea for me from my readings in Phenomenology is the idea of a very intense kind of looking—the kind of looking that I am often engaged in when I’m making a painting. “Bracketing” is another way of referring to this kind of looking that suggests reducing one’s experience to a kind of intense purification and meditation.

JK: In this series you actually use bracket forms to symbolize the idea of bracketing and to draw attention to certain areas of the paintings.

DR:  One visitor to the exhibition told me that to him, the brackets suggested door handles. I love that comment; it develops the idea of opening space in these flat painted objects. The brackets tend to focus attention on their locations in the paintings, but also make you want to look elsewhere, see what else is happening. So again, I’m encouraging viewers to intensely explore what is before them.

Epoché: L’Échange VI (3 views) oil on panel, 122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 2013

JK: Some of these works include a single half circle, recalling the rings of Saturn and the intense blues of the Satunarius series. Interestingly, some of the rectangles bend, suggesting some kind of warping.

DR: With this distortion I’m thinking about how gravity bends light and raising questions about how we see things in space.

Epoché: Ring Cycle #2, oil and acrylic on
panel, 61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 2013
Epoché: Ring Cycle #1, oil and acrylic on
panel, 51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2013

As we have moved along during this interview, I have had numerous occasions to reflect back on the works we have discussed. And not unlike what often happens as I move through a series of ideas, new insights are creeping into what I am doing now.

Dan Ramirez working on two new paintings—La Duquesa: Nocturna Luz I (right)
and La Duquesa: Nocturna Luz II (left), both paintings oil on panel, 102 x 76 cm
(40 x 30 in), 2014

Among those thoughts is how important narrative and storytelling that simultaneously explore both fiction and painting as a thing-in-itself have been to me. It’s a form of play between subject, theme and materials that exemplifies my art, perhaps best characterized by the closing line of the W. B. Yeats’ poem Among School Children—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”


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