To say the least, Ángel Ramírez’s work is, for me, disconcerting. The pieces — engravings, paintings, altarpieces, sculptures, objects… — are made with such subtlety and good taste that they contrast with their entertaining, casual tone, like walking across the house.
I actually have written the above, and now I doubt. Is solemnity the exclusive packaging of “profound” contents? In other latitudes, perhaps; but in Cuba, the solemn and absurd are synonyms. And if we Cubans fear anything, it’s making a idiot of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we don’t abundantly incur ridicule, but we assume it sadly, contritely: we’re the fodder of soap operas and boleros. Our antidote to ridicule is the joke, the ironic comment, the scathing quote, the silly self-recognition. And so it goes.
Simply because Ángel Ramírez’s work baffles me doesn’t mean I don’t prefer it. I defend it with passion, because I find in his work an indefatigable effort to provide the status of greater art to what we consider to be nothing transcendent, that here and now that overwhelms us and wherein we must make arm strokes, reinventing ourselves over and all over again, in order to not sink to the underside.
Ángel Ramírez (Havana, 1954) is an empathetic chronicler. He has the sharpness, intelligence, and sensitivity to have interaction in intense day-to-day dialogue from the side of the “other,” who’s himself. His art, although largely nourished by popular humor, isn’t “folkloric”; if anything, anthropological, since it delves into the ins and outs of the collective being, which constitutes, ultimately, its raw material. It’s reasoned art, of high-quality making, where there may be a small place for probability. It’s mental, but not cold; it’s mental, but not obscure; it shuns conventional beauty, but generates great aesthetic pleasure. It’s such good art that it’s not possible to qualify.
I consign here a couple of data from his extremely wealthy curriculum, because what it’s about is giving him a voice, showing a part of his work.
Graduated from the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in 1982. His work is an element of personal and public collections in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, the USA, Finland, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Colombia, Holland and Poland.
He made his skilled debut within the plastic arts in 1982, with the exhibition Grafías (Galería L, Havana). From 2018 is Soft Frame, collateral to the thirteenth Havana Biennial. Between that and this exhibition there are 30 or more personal exhibitions which have placed him as a top-level figure inside the panorama of national culture. A condition that nobody has conferred on him, but reasonably his stubborn, quiet work, of Spartan ethics. And I say no more. I leave him here.
On a certain occasion you wondered in case your work can be, perhaps, something greater than a game with yourself.1 Do you continue to think that way? Don’t you give it importance within the discussion of our contemporaneity? Don’t you see within the work a kind of thorny path towards transcendence?
I don’t think I actually have marked any milestone that might allow me to dream of transcendence. In fact, I remember with satisfaction good moments along the way in which, specific works that, after I see them again, over time, I still like. I remember with pleasure the opportunities that my occupation has given me to see art of all times and elsewhere, with open eyes and head. I used to be lucky to have excellent students, whose successes and sure transcendence really give me great pleasure. Currently — it should be age — I’ve began to think concerning the fate of those works I’ve created in these 40 years of continuous work; some are higher positioned than others, there are also some with no destination in sight; and yet, I don’t stop working on new pieces.
When does medieval iconography, mainly from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, come into your work? What expressive possibilities does this resource give you?
Once I graduated from the ISA, and even before, I moved inside a certain expressionism, and every thing I did was engraving. Expressionism, which someway got here to me from Antonia Eiriz via Tomás Sánchez, was now not used, and engraving, less. Within the Nineteen Eighties, there was plenty of dislike for engraving due to the “excess cooking,” since it was extremely technical and since the break with the poetics of the Nineteen Seventies (the lyric of the Revolution) was being imposed, which gave approach to an art where the content, the conceptual, anthropological research was valued more. So, in that context I made a decision to proceed making engravings under the premise that the means isn’t what determines the character of the work; and I still consider it, I used to be proven right by much of what was being done world wide. Then again, I feel I actually have given, from the start, more weight to the content, to the story I’m telling. I take advantage of the shape as a support, and the means, as a resource.
Within the crisis of the Nineteen Nineties I felt that we were stuck in our Middle Age (the slow tempo, the artisanal solutions, the precariousness, the very vertical organization of society…). Transportation was especially included in that package of difficulties. So I stayed at home and commenced painting, appropriating the Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine spirit, broken characters, scratched, fire victims. That’s to say, works on which period had painted, because it was doing with our cities and with ourselves. All that medieval imagery all the time appealed to me. Proof of that is that I used to be especially stocked with books to sip from in the course of the Special Period. Through the years, I actually have been capable of see firsthand plenty of ancient art world wide. Of those medieval images, there are other characteristics which have been useful to me depending on the moment and the intent: the inexpressive hieraticism, the inclusion of texts, the express representation of the hierarchy of every character and the undeniable fact that this iconography is universally known.
The primary paintings had plenty of engraving, until they became more painting. For a while now I actually have returned to graphic visuality, even within the sculptures I’m making, where I include plugs as objects. Perhaps what interests me the least in engraving is the multiplicity, but I cannot and don’t want to part with it, nor its history nor its culture.
You’ve got made pieces along with Belkis Ayón, Chocolate and Luis Cabrera, amongst others. Did this dialogue with diverse poetics have a conjunctural nature or could or not it’s prolonged to the longer term?
With Luis Cabrera I made a batch of pieces under the title Una serie de cosas. It was all a divertimento. Alternately, one began to attract the lithograph without the presence of the opposite, who then finished it. The word “cosas” (things) all the time appeared, and on that we did agree, with all its arsenal of ambiguity. Just a few years later (in 1997), Belkis Ayón and I were invited to exhibit in Japan, and the gallery owner asked us for a bit between the 2 of us to tie together two such different aesthetics. The method was very entertaining, thorough and a product of dialogue. We titled the work Dando y dando.
In 2004 I started to draw a bunch of colleagues, just about all of them engravers, to place together one other series under the identical name of Dando y dando, with the intention of putting every one’s own stamp to play with my way of doing things. On this case, I proposed the figure of a king as a continuing, so the show would achieve unity and a raison d’etre. It was very gratifying to have the positive response of greater than 20 artists, which I thank everyone for. On the opening there was a toast with coffee with milk and bread and butter, for being classic pairs, akin to Adam and Eve or the duo Los Compadres. The expo was also a tribute to Belkis, who had passed away in 1999.
The project is open; in reality, it has grown. I intend to work on new pieces based on continuing to confront aesthetics with the predefined, thought-out, agreed-upon intention.
A central area of your work may be described as humorous, ironic and even sarcastic. Are those traits of your character or do they belong to the character that each artist assumes when facing the creative act? In literary theory many efforts are used to clarify that the protagonist of the work written in the primary person isn’t the writer, but a personality.
I headed for engraving, a resource or means filled with surprises that requires time, technological discipline, order. There may be the custom of putting a title at the underside of the print; for me it was the awakening of interest in relating text and image, and to accomplish that avoiding descriptive titles of the landscape with a dog type, where you’ll be able to see a dog in a meadow. The concept was, then, to hunt unity, a dialogue that resorts to the absurd, sarcasm, irony. In fact it weighs lots that humor was a part of my environment since childhood, especially on the side of my father and his family, who were talkative farmers, witty, with sharp phrases, despite having, usually, little education.
Early on I assumed that humor was a considerable component of what’s Cuban, but later I actually have been capable of see that we shouldn’t think we’re the one ones. The reality is that humor, with its local hidden message, is within the DNA of humanity and even in other species.
Searching for to search out the suitable approach to tell my stories, I actually have been chasing well-known images with proverbs, common phrases, or from one or one other rhetoric. It’s pure recycling, as much as after I add borrowed objects or supports. On several occasions the set can arouse smiles, but what I would really like is to maneuver ideas. I actually have, nonetheless, amongst many limitations, that these texts, plays on words can’t be translated, not less than without losing the purpose. What does it mean for a Chinese, a Pole, and even for a Colombian, Café de la bodega?
State the artistic family to which you belong, those authors, Cuban or not, who’ve influenced you notably, even when this isn’t made explicit within the work.
I’ll just offer you a bunch of names. In high-quality arts, the portraits of Fayum, Acosta León, Antonia Eiriz, Raúl Martínez; in sculptures, Díaz Peláez. On the planet, lots from Mexico, Les Luthiers, El Greco, Mondrian, plenty of cinema, African art, Toledo (the town), Saint Basil’s Basilica in Moscow, New York, Michelangelo’s slaves, a hotel in Sweden filled with art. I actually have 90% of what can have whispered something in my ear.
I don’t feel I’m a part of any group. I used to be old after I got to art school, so I used to be a little bit younger than the professors on the ENA, and I didn’t assume the aesthetics of that generation. Nor did I deny it. I used to be not a part of the generation of the Nineteen Eighties, with whom I shared classrooms on the ISA. Anyway, I said that I’m a degenerate. In any case, I feel more in tune with the range that happens from the Nineteen Nineties.
Several times you’ve gotten represented Saint George, the Catholic character who’s in a perpetual fight with dragons. Why the predilection for that saint? What are Ángel Ramírez’s dragons?
There are dragons all over the place; and when not, they’re invented. It might seem that evil sustains and justifies good; and vice versa. At one stage I used the figure of Saint George lots precisely due to the myth’s Manichaean character, but what I used to be searching for was precisely to blur the boundaries of excellent and evil (how far is one inside the other?). I also used the saint to face other dragons of on a regular basis life, of the here and now. The essential problems of humanity have been the identical because the starting of time, it changes kind of how they manifest themselves and the tools with which they’re faced. Given the variety of representations that I actually have seen of Saint George (essentially the most, stripped of drama and without apparent physical effort of the contending parties), it makes me doubt the effectiveness of the saint in his endeavor, or it’s also likely that he’ll resurrect the evil bug, although with a renewed appearance.
On account of the elaborateness of your pieces, resulting from the conceptual density that lots of them possess, it’s difficult to associate you with the romantic idea of the inspired artist, snatched away by a breath of unveiling creativity. Do you’re thinking that out the works before making them? Is there inspiration? If it exists, what’s inspiration for you?
This matter of artistic creation is approached through very different paths, with different objectives, and all of them have given great works and likewise expendable works. In my case, passion, inspiration, the seek for beauty itself are ruled out; also, respect for a certain formula. My work goes more for what is assumed out, even when in the method I exploit the accident, the casual within the making. The randomness of the belief that I impose on myself leaves me time to think, to place together my story. I actually benefit from the process, there are several moments: the title or text that can be a part of it takes me days, and it may possibly be outlined until the last moment; searching for the image, posing it. Then the belief is a matter of trade. I also benefit from the technical part, devising mechanisms, taking over challenges in that sense. I actually have been told that I actually have the top of an engineer (he was an engineer). I don’t think it’s that much.
Among the many thematic points of your work is the use, acceptance or rejection of power. Any power. Were you a rebellious teenager? Do you’ve gotten trouble accepting authority? Do you concentrate on that because the starting of time the exercise of power is a generally abusive practice?
My mother had her authoritarian, controlling component. Moreover, I’m an only child. From the top of my childhood, and for a very long time, I used to be linked to the Catholic Church, which put more emphasis on fearing God than believing in him. In any case, my rebelliousness has been of low intensity and has consisted in not being very sociable, in being, to this point, deeply atheist, and in not liking to be like others. I actually have never followed any fashion, and the worst seems to me to be the style of living fastidiously slovenly. The poses and the surplus of perfection annoy me, precisely due to that.
Much of my work deals with the theme of power, of the patriarch, who generally is a father of a family or an emperor, and he continues to be an individual together with his ideas, his pains and his fears. In fact at different levels. The goodness of a king can reach many, as can the chaos, cruelty or disorder that he’s able to. We’re marked by the powers that fly over us and, at the identical time, by the ability that we exercise from our level.
If you happen to got to gather Cuban art, which artist, period, school or genre would you privilege? Why?
I actually have a really small collection of works from friends, just about all graphics. But I don’t have the space or the economy to gather art. I don’t have that hobby of collecting, it’s the reality, after I’m in front of a murals I feel that at that moment it’s mine, and I enjoy it to the fullest.
I regret that we don’t have a cupboard of prints where essentially the most relevant of Cuban engraving may be preserved and consulted. That may be an establishment for which I might like to work. If I could afford it (space and economy), I would really like to have plenty of old tools, the sort which are an extension of the hand due to intelligence.
How do you relate to the market and critics? Do you’re feeling sufficiently cared for by one and the opposite?
I actually have had a foul relationship with the market. I suffer, not less than, a few little details against: 1) I belong to a bunch that believed in utopia, the collective was ahead of the private and art was more to speak, enchant, participate, than a commodity. There are several of us who haven’t been capable of handle the problem, this trade takes as much or more work outside the workshop pushing the work, than inside. 2) I’m given to creating works with a really marked formal diversity, something that the market doesn’t like. Many individuals (including gallery owners and other institutions) are searching for a painting just like the one their neighbor bought last month, and I rarely have it.
Surrounded all over the place, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, gold leaf, and wood, 170 x 174 x 25 cm.
Ask me if I would like soup, 2016. Oil on canvas, 94 x 81 cm.
He’s she, 2019. Wood assembly, 57x 85 x 84 cm.
Hair standing on end, 2015. Mixed media on wood, 140 x 65 x 43 cm.
End of utopia, 2016. Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 173 x 208 cm.
I went through Sol and it was on fire, 2015. Manipulated xylography, 68 x 64 cm.
Then again, the critics, making use of their perspicacity, haven’t paid me much attention. I can still let you know that I actually have been capable of live from my work and feed my family. And as for critics, once they have said something, it falls inside the favorable.
1 Catalog AR, Italy, 2003. Pag. 2.