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    Tunnel Vision
by N. F. Karlins
 
     
 
Untitled (Train and Two Tunnels)
(detail)
ca. 1950
 
Untitled (Frontal Cowboy)
ca. 1953
 
Untitled (Rabbit and Pyramid)
ca. 1950
 
Untitled (Train with Deer)
ca. 1953
 
Untitled (Empty Freeway)
ca. 1953
 
Untitled (Red Engine)
ca. 1953
 
Untitled (Five Cowboys)
ca. 1950
 
"Martin Ramirez: Previously Unseen Works," June 3-July 30,1999, and in Aug. by appointment at Phyllis Kind Gallery, 136 Greene St., New York, N.Y. 10012.

You might get dizzy looking at any one of the 12 drawings in "Martin Ramirez: Previously Unseen Works." Born sometime between 1885 and 1895 in Jalisco, Mexico, Ramirez died in California in 1963. Little is known of his early years, though he is thought to have been a poor laborer. In 1930 he turned up half-starved, homeless and in a dazed condition in Los Angeles. There he was diagnosed as mute and a paranoid schizophrenic and spent the rest of his life institutionalized.

Nevertheless, this uneducated man produced haunting drawings and collages, populated with religious imagery and often marked with tunnel-like repeated lines that look like clam shells about to snap shut. With a stub of graphite and colored pencils, Ramirez daringly confronted the immensity of his new world and the fears that it bred.

From about 1948 until 1954, he worked in secret, using cast-off paper of every type, often glued together with mashed potatoes and saliva. Eventually his work came to the attention of Dr. Tarmo Pasto, and Ramirez was given better materials.

After his death, his drawings were discovered in a rapidly deteriorating condition. They were saved by Phyllis Kind and two artists she represented, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, who paid for extensive conservation of his approximately 300 drawings.

With the development of the thriving market for Outsider Art, Ramirez's works have escalated in value since their first exhibition in the 1970s. They currently command between $25,000 for small black-and-white images of cowboys, and $150,000 for larger, color images of the Virgin. Ramirez's biography -- what we know of it -- and the quality and rapidly increasing prices of his art are so compelling that they threaten to turn him into another van Gogh. Will T-shirts of his trains be next?

Ramirez projects the visceral exhilaration and awe that a single human being can experience before the forces of technology, embodied in trains, as in his Untitled (Train and Two Tunnels) or before the all-encompassing power of religion, embodied by Madonnas.

In other works, he stakes his claim against the world around him by drawing images of caballeros, or cowboys. Usually depicted in boxed-in architectural spaces, the figures fire guns, and in doing so, fend off the crush of the walls around them. In Untitled (Frontal Cowboy) the artist's usually profiled caballero figure peers straight at the viewer with a quizzical expression. It embodies the helplessness you might feel after stumbling and watching a stack of crockery drop to the floor as you mutter "Oops."

His caballeros are often on pedestals, but usually not like the possibly Meso-America-inspired one in Untitled (Rabbit and Pyramid). Atop this structure is a hero, who waves a rabbit as proudly as any magician who happened to pull one out of a hat.

Do the frequent images of gun-toting figures on horseback under a proscenium arch come from something Ramirez saw in Mexico, California, or perhaps in the press? We will never know for sure. He did use cut-up newspapers and magazines as collage elements in some of his works, and he certainly did absorb a lot of his adopted culture.

Rather than being overwhelmed by the technological marvels of modernity, (in which case there would be no art), he called upon his Catholic faith to assist him. Ramirez proclaimed its potency in towering Virgins, as in Untitled (Virgin Immaculada). One of the largest works Ramirez ever made, it shows a large Virgin precariously resting atop a collaged Virgin and another figure.

One of Ramirez's pictorial strategies was to create and balance passages by repeating abstract shapes as well as recognizable forms and human figures or animals. Two alarmed quadrupeds, for instance, occupy the lower left of Untitled (Train with Two Deer).

Elsewhere, he shapes curves into warped force fields or repeats lines to form dazzling linear perspectival frames that suck the viewer in. Gaze for awhile at Ramirez's Untitled (Empty Freeway) and you are trapped in a maelstrom. In contrast, the train in Untitled (Red Engine) has sufficient might to serenely, almost jauntily, worm its way along tracks between hills, which give off plenty of energy of their own.

Ramirez communicates primal sensations. Limbic parts of the brain get a workout in seeing something like his Untitled (Five Cowboys). More interesting than the five cowboys is the additional help they get from two side-saddle females in confronting the tunnel-cave-womb that awaits them. I don't think it's too far-fetched to think of the females as crucial in the group's attempt to enter the dark unknown space before them, as the artist has them lead the way. The balance is tenuous. Whoever you are, you feel the tension.


N. F. KARLINS is a New York-based art historian.