Shape-shifting is basic to the drawings and paintings of Christina Ramberg (1946-95). She was a member of Chicago's "Hairy Who." This important group of Imagists, whose ranks included Ray Yoshida, Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and Roger Brown, found individual ways of blending comics, advertising, folk art and eerie Surrealist sleight-of-hand into powerful stylized forms all their own.
Ramberg's large imposing dark canvases of female torsos swathed in stylized patterned bindings give birth to other female figures seemingly squeezed from the bindings. They bring to mind S&M bondage games, fertility rites, masking traditions and Art Deco along with sources shared by other "Hairy Who" artists.
Christina Ramberg's work is currently enjoying a well-deserved mini-renaissance. Adam Baumgold Gallery recently put on her first New York show in 25 years, titled "Christina Ramberg: Paintings and Drawings." Two large paintings of dark female torsos, one from the Met and one from the Whitney, were rare treats. She only completed a dozen or two of them. A selection of her drawings, the stripped-down templates from which she meticulously crafted her larger paintings, proved how diligent and control-obsessed her talent was.
I caught up with a traveling show of her drawings containing previously unseen source material, notebooks and preliminary sketches at its last stop, the University of Richmond in Virginia. The show was first seen at Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago, where it was organized by Judith Russi Kirshner, dean of the College of Architecture and the Arts.
Ramberg loved copying shapes from comics, ads, fashion mags, exotic costume catalogues and manuals, medical illustrations, signs, ceramics and a wide variety of pop culture sources and then transforming them verbally and formally on the page. What starts as a simple drawing of wavy hair on a female seen from behind morphs into "iceberg lettuce," "romaine," "plastic bag" and "pantaloons." She sees a hockey mask and riffs "girl, goalie, ghoul."
Kirchner, in a catalogue essay, asserts that Ramberg's fave forms were the female figure and urns. She certainly did lots of contour drawings of Chinese vases, and female imagery abounds, but not nudes. The clothed or hidden figure is central to Ramberg. What makes it all crackle is her imagination laboring with obsessive redrawings of a single image as a way of opening up new possibilities and holding onto part of all the associations at once à la Surrealism.
Ramberg even examines the "Landscapes Inside" candy bars! You will never scoff up a Milky Way in the same manner after seeing her dissections of chocolates. Drawing cross-sections of candy bars, she relentlessly catalogues the interior patterns. How appropriate that the industry calls these chocolate-covered treats "enrobed."
Ramberg uses clothing as binding and as a kind of masking. Clothing both calls attention to the female form as something special yet refuses to reveal exactly what it is. Because of its constriction, you get the added potential of a hidden explosive, or in Ramberg's case a specifically sexually potent force.
This strategy can be seen in all her work. When she draws curtains, Ramberg gives them a floral pattern and pleats them, noting "never show main pattern." Her work is both a playful tease with its funky Pop-based imagery and a deadly serious lesson in repression by a consciousness that saw restriction everywhere.
Ramberg's work is not shown as much as it deserves. She suffered from a degenerative disease that cut short her working life even before her early death. There are simply not that many major paintings. But there seem to be plenty of drawings and for that we have to be grateful.
"Christina Ramberg: Drawings" is on view through Dec. 9, 2001, at the Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond, Richmond, Va. (After its debut at Gallery 400, the show was seen at the Otis College of Art and Design in Santa Monica, the Herron Gallery of the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and the Madison Art Center in Madison, Wisc.)
Also on display at the Marsh Art Gallery right now is "Point of View: Folk Art from the William and Ann Oppenhimer Collection," a potpourri from the holdings of the resourceful twosome that founded the Folk Art Society of America in 1987. The exhibition, focused on Southern folk artists that the couple have met, includes a few other works like the dramatic crayon-on-paper Horse and Rider by Martin Ramirez from 1950.
The University of Richmond, a private institution, had a show of Australian aboriginal paintings in another gallery, had just opened a new Print Study Center, and recently opened a gallery in conjunction with their earth sciences area that featured the glassworks of Josh Simpson. What a great line-up of shows for one university to offer its students! Hats off to Richard Waller, executive director of the museums at U. Richmond.
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Back in New York, a young new artist is sparking plenty of excitement. Downtown in Tribeca, K. S. Art is presenting the second one-man show of Jonathan Lerman. His previous show was of heads in charcoal and sometimes pastel. Now there are heads and figures alone and in groups in interiors or exteriors. They are executed exclusively in charcoal.
The artist sketches in his composition. Rapid, energetic rubbing creates texture and tonal variation. Finally he goes back and darkens previously drawn areas, emphasizing them in rich black. Whether a single head, a strolling couple, or a rock band, all are untitled. The prices range from $750 for smaller pieces to $950 for a 19 by 24 inch charcoal.
Lerman, who is all of 14 years old and somewhat autistic, started drawing obsessively five years ago. This show is dramatic leap forward in his technical abilities. It is wonderful to watch such a talented draughtsman mature.
"Jonathan Lerman: Drawings" remains on view through Oct. 27, 2001, at K. S. Art, 73 Leonard Street in Tribeca.
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Also exhilarating is new work by the seasoned, Canadian-born artist Sky Pape. At first glance the pieces in Sky Pape's "Silver Linings: Graphite Drawings" at June Kelly look like burnished aluminum disks in low relief against a flat background. At least the flat background is accurate.
Pape uses only graphite in a freehand-drawn circle to conjure up a glowing central disc against pale yellow milk paint on board. Seemingly three-dimensional planes shimmer and dance before the viewer's eyes.
The shifting light effects are magical, seeming to emanate from a space deep inside the picture plane. The light then reaches out and vibrates within the beholder. Nature and Eastern esthetics are put to excellent use in these coolly luminous pieces.
Works measuring 29 by 29 inches sell for $6,500 to $8,500, while Rangoli, the largest piece in the show at 58 by 58 inches, will set back the lucky buyer $12,500. Some smaller pieces use graphite against rust on board. At 12 by 12 inches, these are priced at $3,500.
"Sky Pape: Silver Lining -- Graphite Drawings" is at June Kelly, 591 Broadway, through Oct. 30, 2001.
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Joseph Helman gallery's important show, "William Baziotes: Works on Paper," surveys pieces from 1930-32 to 1961. If Sky Pape focuses on airy light, here is an artist most at home with water. The fluid forms of his pastel-toned watercolors make it hard to remember that Baziotes (1912-1963) burst onto the art scene as one of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s. This exhibition reminds us of Baziotes changes over more than 30 years as an artist.
Associating with American Abstract Expressionists and European Surrealists, too, Baziotes relished a sense of community but developed as an autodidact. His Greek heritage gave him entry into the classical world of myth and to the sea, both influences that increased over time. He used automatism as a way into the work of art, although he was always conscious of controlling psychic forces as he translated them into paint. The end result was liminal spaces filled with strange billowy creatures that flourished solely in his imagination.
Early figurative pieces are impressive, like Baziotes' Clown from 1938. Figures morph into abstractions in the early '40s then into otherworldly animalcules, his best known work. Limiting himself to a few large biomorphic shapes that float, often with linear elements, amid broad areas of blended tones, his later works have a poetry and quiet rigor that are all his own. Only a very few late pieces seem a bit thin.
A late watercolor, measuring around 14 by 18 inches, can still be had for between $30,000 and $45,000. To own Baziotes' gorgeous colors in one of the slightly larger pastels, like his Untitled (Study for Moby Dick), ca. 1953-4, costs $100,000 or more.
"William Baziotes: Works on Paper," through Nov. 3, 2001, at Joseph Helman, 20 West 57th Street.
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If you haven't seen it yet, fly over to Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery to savor "David Hockney & Henri Matisse Line Drawings." It is simply one of the most sensual and sophisticated exhibitions of the year. I had often thought of how these two bodies of work might look together and now the work with their wonderful bodies is here.
Both artists deal in confident, powerful and sexy personalities, whether clothed, nude, or somewhere in between. And the show is beautifully installed with one drawing playing off each other.
Sensitively placed together on the same wall, is Hockney's Henry Geldzahler at Le Nid de Duc in ink from 1969 with his head tilted and contemplative ($38,000) and Matisse's Odalisque in charcoal from 1922 ($590,000). She's semi-clothed but equally at home in her body. And she contemplates the viewer with a bemused head-tilt of her own.
Hockney's Peter Reading (1966, ink) shows the nude figure of young Peter, necklace dangling, front flat on a bed and propped up on his arms reading a book. He's busy and unavailable, yet the long, lazy curve of his back is teasingly present for our eyes to see. The clothed Cecil Beaton (1970, ink) is clad in a dandyish suit and clutching one leg, stares at the viewer, projecting a ravenous appetite. Peter is sold, but Cecil is priced -- if you stand his hungry eyes -- at $38,000.
Matisse is more interested in women. In Femme Accoudée (1935, India ink), the hair and nipple of his bracelet-wearing and rather bored Eve rhyme with the flowers that surround her. It's sexy, decorative, imaginatively composed and yours for $525,000.
Don't miss these 21 delightful drawings.
"David Hockney & Henri Matisse Line Drawings," through Nov. 10, 2001, at Artemis, Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, 730 Fifth.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.