The doors alone, with richly colored shapes painted on the glass, lure a visitor from outside into the West Gallery at Grounds For Sculpture. Come in and play, they seem to say.
Inside, on the shiny concrete floor, are five plastic Day Glo colored benches shaped like Life Savers on steroids. The echo of a voice repeating words is just beyond my hearing focal range; it draws me closer to the large works on the wall. It’s hard to separate the “music” from the gallery’s ambient noise, but I hear something like an air-raid siren or a whistling tea kettle. As the sounds turn to rushing water, the eccentric circles of color on the walls appear to be moving. Has someone slipped LSD into my water bottle?
This is “Rattle,” a gallery installation by artist Paul Henry Ramirez, on view through January 8, 2017.
Sometimes amid large bold things, it’s the little simple thing that draws the eye. The small white ceramic sculptures in vitrines, whose polymorphous shapes can be what the viewer imagines — a mother dancing with her children, a colony of people taking over a boat, a jester with seven heads, a father and son competing to see who can juggle more balls, a group grope — are gracefully gentle. Spend time absorbing them while listening to the music and you will understand the title “Rattle.” There are also dripping sounds, and then you look up at the large spirals of color and see they are, indeed, dripping.
Each painting is different, says Ramirez, sitting so upright on those plastic benches your best posture feels like it’s slumping. In contrast to the world of color in this installation, Ramirez wears all black. His ponytail matches the color of his sunglasses, which he removes to switch into glasses with a black frame and clear lenses. Always in black, Ramirez is a fixture at area gallery openings.
“I mix the colors for vibrancy and I do it intuitively,” says Ramirez, who has rented studio space at Grounds For Sculpture since 2008. “I’m introducing a new palette for this show. If it looks right to my eye, I don’t think about it too much — I’m a born colorist, it comes naturally. If I like it I go with the flow. The large fields require lots of coats applied evenly.”
A group of high school students has come through to tour the space. They hang out inside the Life Saver benches, as if inside a hot tub, and their union begins to resemble the shapes Ramirez has formed from clay.
“All my work is figurative and references the body,” he says.
“Rattle” was created in response to the architecture of the West Gallery. Ramirez says he treated the space like a blank canvas. When curator Tom Moran invited him to consider the space, Ramirez noted the curves in the wall and started to draw shapes. “I put the paintings inside and it reminded me of rattles,” he says. “How we see and perceive rattles your thoughts with new ways to see forms in space. Colors and paint are being rattled up in the air, playing around corners.”
Ramirez began by making a maquette for the site-specific installation. There are pieces of the puzzle that get repurposed from one installation to the next, but they take on a new life in the new situation. Some of the silkscreen-on-linen paintings were originally produced for an installation at Eastern Illinois University Tarble Arts Center where, with the use of a lazy Susan and magnets, they would rotate. Gallery viewers were required to don white gloves to turn them, creating their own composition. Here they are stationery. “It pushes how we see painting,” Ramirez says.
The El Paso, Texas, native grew up on the border near Juarez, Mexico. His parents divorced when he was young and he never really knew his father, but his mother took care of Paul Henry and his four siblings. He played clarinet in his school marching band but had to work at an early age.
Paul Henry’s grandmother gave him a big box of Crayola craft projects including a paint-by-number set he loved, but his introduction to art came from the family Bible. “The Bible had beautiful paintings. I would study them and thought to myself, I want to do this, and I never gave up.”
His teachers praised his drawing “and their support fueled me to continue being creative.” Before leaving El Paso, he had a solo exhibit in Juarez. At that time, he says, he was involved with non-denominational Christianity and created vessel shapes that represented good and evil. “They dealt with the body, were in earth tones, and were surrealistic in a (20th century British figurative artist) Francis Bacon sort of way. I would paint on canvas, then remove the paint to see the surface, (for an effect like Andrew) Wyeth’s egg temperas.”
He recounts driving his artwork over the border in a Ford pickup truck. From that experience, he put together a group show, “Juntos,” with artists from Juarez and El Paso. “Juntos means together,” Ramirez says, and at the time there was little Spanish art being shown in the Hispanic El Paso community. The show took on a life of its own, running annually for 30 years.
Ramirez, who is no longer practicing Christianity, says you never leave it even if you don’t practice. “I learned a lot from it,” he says. He attended the University of Texas at El Paso, where he studied painting, printmaking, drawing, and sculpture for a year. He received a grant to study printmaking in Paris, but instead came to Trenton, where a friend was doing an apprenticeship at the Johnson Atelier. From there, Ramirez had a successful career as a window designer for a number of years. Living on Greenwood Avenue in Trenton in the mid 1980s, he worked in visual merchandising for Macy’s in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania, and then Lord & Taylor in Somerville.
While doing an independent study at Raritan Valley Community College, an instructor asked if he had ever been to Henri Bendel’s, the high end Fifth Avenue accessory and gift shop. “‘It’s so beautiful, you’ll love it,’” Ramirez recounts, “So I bought a train ticket to New York. It was my first time alone in the city, and walking on Fifth Avenue I fell in love. There was a person working on a mannequin in a window, and after chatting he suggested I send a letter to the manager, and that’s how I got the job. It was the creme de la creme job in visual merchandising, and I met super stars and celebrities.”
While designing a window with clouds and gilded angels for a gown with a 100-foot train, he met actor Christian Slater and designer Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as super models. “I was surrounded by beauty and luxury.”
By the 1990s he moved from Lambertville to New York, then Brooklyn. The work for stores was very demanding, but Ramirez learned about working with other people, timelines, presentations, and how to do your very best. He left Bendel’s to work for Charivari, where the likes of Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Onassis shopped. It was a job that left him more time to devote to his own artwork. Caren Golden Fine Art took him on, and it was there that the term “biomorphic abstraction” was first used to describe his work in a catalog essay by noted critic Donald Kuspit.
“What I was doing was geometric, having a dialogue with architecture and space, squares and lines,” he says. “Straight lines come together with curved lines to create this language.” Soon he was exhibiting in alternative spaces. “I was using male and female forms, morphing into one universal form. All of the figures are based on abstraction, but are minimal — they are about touch and movement, space and volume.”
He came back to New Jersey in 2008. “I never really left New Jersey. My friends were here, and I visited on the weekends. It’s nice to be back and not far from New York City.” What he loves about having his studio at the Grounds, besides the beautiful environment, is being in a community of artists who share ideas.
Since 2002 Ramirez has been collaborating with the Japanese-born sound designer So Takahashi, who worked with Ramirez on the sound element for “Rattle” — it runs for 57 minutes and comes through five different speakers, moving from one to the other so it sounds like it is moving. The viewer is compelled to walk through to get the full effect.
Takahashi, a former New York City resident, now lives in Norway, so the collaboration takes place over Skype. It began with Ramirez seeking out sounds he liked then sharing them with Takahashi. “I was interested in playful explosions, children laughing,” says Ramirez, who recorded himself saying words like “squirts” and “splatters” and “shake it up” — which were meshed together with the sound. There are 10 tracks separated by quiet space.
“The beauty is that the viewer can experience it a different way every time they come in because of all the layers,” says Ramirez. Even the fired clay pieces take on a different cast, depending on the angle of the sun coming in through the colored glass.
Ramirez doesn’t necessarily wake up and say to himself, OK, today I’m going to work on my ideas in clay. “I don’t think about it, I just do it. If I have clay I can’t wait to get my hands in and work — I treat it like drawing. I feel an immediate and deep connection to line. I think of it as dance to music. It’s always exciting — each work leads to the next, and is a continuation of the last show. You keep building on the idea, making it new and fresh.”
Rattle, Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Through January 8, 2017. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.(Fridays and Saturday to 9 p.m. during summer), $10 to $15. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.