featuresStudio visits
Friday, June 5th, 2015

“I like to give the viewer a lot of credit”: A Studio Visit with Mary Claire Ramirez

114th Annual Student Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, (215) 972-7600. May 15 to June 7, 2015

Mary Claire Ramirez is a graduating student in the MFA program at PAFA. She discusses her artistic outlook with faculty member and artist Michael Gallagher, exploring ideas about the hybrid nature of her work, the implications of the 2D and 3D distinction, and the active role of the viewer. This interview constitutes the 2015 artcritical prize at PAFA, which has been awarded for the first time this year; a vote of faculty determines which graduating MFA candidate is selected for special editorial exposure in our pages. Ramirez will also participate in a group show, “And Many More,” selected by the recently appointed Curator of Contemporary Art at PAFA, Jodi Throckmorton, at 33 Orchard on the Lower East Side, opening June 17.

Mary Claire Ramirez, Stereotype (Stage Left and Stage Right), 2015. Archival inkjet prints, each 40 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Mary Claire Ramirez, Stereotype (Stage Left and Stage Right), 2015. Archival inkjet prints, each 40 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the Artist


MICHAEL GALLAGHER This current installation represents the culmination of your time spent here at the Academy working towards your MFA. I believe you came into the program working two-dimensionally, primarily in painting and drawing. These mixed media works evidence a growing interest in sculpture. Can you comment on this move from ‘image to object’ and your choice of materials and their usage?

MARY CLAIRE RAMIREZ Graduate school was about ‘making’ and making ‘it’ anywhere.  I came to PAFA to cultivate a practice that I could take anywhere and make-work in response to a dynamic environment.  My studio has always been provisional.   I suppose there’s a tech savvy, ‘post-studio’ aspect to some of my maneuvering, but I truly value establishing a distinct thinking space.  It has been my motivation to move and to keep moving.  Finding space, creating space, and altering space all prompt a constant state of inventiveness.  It’s also a state that breeds pragmatism, which can be an asset as well as a hang-up.

In my first semester I was reluctant to deal with ‘thingness’ beyond painting.  Working two dimensionally (and digitally) seemed the most practical response to my nomadic lifestyle.   Partly out of space, partly out of habit, I would step into the role of draftsman or painter-technician, concerned with materials and rendering.  Being classically trained, I fell back on my methods and my mantras (“fat over lean,” etc.) – but working in this manner reduced painting to surfacing.  For example, paint as a material, though instrumental in facilitating certain optical effects was essentially subordinate to the image depicted.  I realized I was making pictures that were absolutely concerned with ‘finish’ and the ‘painting’ was more or less incidental.  This material-conceptual disjunction between ‘surface’ and ‘finish’ was the jump-off.  It marked the sort of criticality of convention I had been skirting in my undergrad and more acutely opened up exploration in my graduate studies.

The move from “image to object” was more conceptually slight than its sculptural manifestation.  Painting’s allure has always resided in its dual status as image and object.  Photography, (digital photography in particular) further collapses this relationship and is the primary reason I have integrated photography into my practice.  These two modes of image-making come with certain expectations and valuation given their respective (and mutual) histories.  These industrial/artisanal associations are the ‘hi – lo’ elements I extort and exploit in my art making.

My most recent work is comprised of both artist and non-artist materials. There are many found objects and studio detritus visible in the works, as well as some very sophisticated imaging techniques and language. These esoteric moments run the risk of being overlooked, but they are present nonetheless.  I use ‘waste’ and crafted vulgarisms as humanizing mechanisms in the work.  The use of elegance in surfacing, design, and language are intended to forefront the sophistication in the work.

Sophistication is about a connoisseurship of means.  When I use materials and images that recall the interplay between class and classlessness, between culture and culturedness, I am linking up concepts of privilege, status, and superiority with socio-economic determinants of access and excess.  I commonly achieve this end through appropriation, jury-rigged assemblage, and photo-composites.

I think one of the most striking aspects of your work is the diversity of forms. No two works seem to share a consistent visual language, although one can sense an underlying connectivity to everything you make. Even when one object seems to be ‘pairing up’ with another, that coupling is brief and then you’re on to a very different looking piece, that never the less seems related to the work when seen in total. You describe your work as ‘discreet objects that morph” For this reason I think of you as a true ‘free- ranger’ – you make connections everywhere, with just about anything, something like Repo-Man’s “Lattice of Coincidence”. Are you familiar with this reference?

Mary Claire Ramirez, Heyday [unframed], 2015. Archival inkjet print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Mary Claire Ramirez, Heyday [unframed], 2015. Archival inkjet print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
I’m inclined to say the variety in appearance comes with the territory, but dissonance is merely a pretense of bricolage. In concept, the guiding philosophy unifying all the work is the same. I am interested in structuring something irreducible and contingent. What is at hand dictates my next move. I hold my 3d work to the same utilitarian ends as my 2D work. My sculpture is haptic and the photographs tactile. I use textures to simulate touch. I build and install objects to suggest transition and transience. I use language to scale and shift the gaze. I abstain from masking hardware and traces of software so that the material history is conserved. Left in an ostensibly ‘raw’ state, a material may then refer to its own making and suggest the potential for future making. Even in a digital piece, I like to show ‘the stitching’. This anti-illusory aspect is idealistic and Neo-Realist in approach.

Haha. Yes!  I’m familiar with the reference.  I’m also abiding cautious of the fact that correlation does imply causation.  It’s a very common logical fallacy; one that snares simple apprehension and can be the territory for some rather fanciful conclusions and magical thinking.  For this reason, it also happens to be the cornerstone of much of my installation work.

Installation grants me the most play with the life span of an aesthetic event.   As one moves through an installation space a nonlinear narrative is activated.  Kinships arise through proximity.  The propinquity that exists between the objects and subject intensifies as the viewer navigates vignettes and asides that emerge and fall away.  Discrete elements may literally and figuratively begin to transform each other.   Shifting vantage points bring the installed actants into a ‘lattice of coincidence’, a contingent framework sustained by the repetition of seeded formal and iconographic references.  These co-occurrences and couplings emerge, as salient, but the relationship can be as bare as it is brimming.  It is after all, an act of the mind.

You mention sculpture as an image becoming” and how it slows a viewer down. Can you comment on how you have come to differentiate between 2D and 3D works? You mentioned earlier that you think of ‘sculpture as image’ – how so?

I loosely narrated an instance of an image ‘becoming’ when I walked us through orchestrating an installation space.  A thing must first be perceived before it can be judged and its nature reasoned.  Art is funny because it has no reason. We speak as though it does, but reason is an act of the mind, and that lies with the beholder.   That being said, I wouldn’t discount the coded logic of an image.

Mary Claire Ramirez, Untitled (Related Chronologies), 2015. Mixed media, 8 x 14 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Mary Claire Ramirez, Untitled (Related Chronologies), 2015. Mixed media, 8 x 14 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

I like pictures because they are ubiquitous.  I like images because they are treacherous.  They can simulate and stimulate. Their materiality is uncertain, unfixed, and tenuously vessel-bound.  Sculpture can be a substrate or it can be an anchor— semantically and morphologically an image.  Sculpture in its literal concreteness can facilitate the ‘false concreteness’ of the image.

Because the photographs sublimate an instant and the sculptures tend to be a little more generous in showing their seams, I try to slow photography down with sculpture and use graphic devices in my sculptures to improve their agility, to give them the appearance of being mobile or scalar like a digital image.  This hybridization helps the work resist categorization and remains multivalent, allowing it to ‘pair-up’, change state, and suspend judgment.  It also blurs the 2D- 3D distinction.  Some sculpture is very flat while other pieces are in the round.   When I talk shop, I often address anything that is not a photographic print as a sculpture— but much of the sculpture incorporates photography.  It’s an archivist’s nightmare. Given their mixed heritage, I informally refer to the prints and sculptures as ‘objects’ regardless of what image they may host.

I notice a funny, small-scale wall mounted object that you have titled “The Generous Gambler”. There’s that ‘discreet object morphing’ – what appears to be an eye gazing out from the wall simultaneously becomes an ear, the eye now a proportionally huge ‘receiver’, capable of hearing everything. Can you walk us through this piece?

Mary Claire Ramirez listening to a crit of her work at the Pennsylvania Academy, May 2015.
Mary Claire Ramirez listening to a crit of her work at the Pennsylvania Academy, May 2015.

Yeah. This little guy is quite attractive and unassuming– or perhaps unconcerned.  The object is familiar, but estranged. On first take, it appears to be some sort of organ or apparatus installed like a fly on the wall. The fetish is griped by the wall and by white lid that envelops it.  Perhaps it’s a talisman or medallion?  The anatomy is uncanny.   It looks a little like a disembodied ear lobe or an oculus.  It has the aura of something omnipresent, but easily overlooked.

The piece is named for a poem by Charles Baudelaire. It refers to ‘the encounter’—to the gambit of seeing and of being seen, to the suzerain gaze, and to the paranoia wrought by beholder and the beholden. ‘The Generous Gambler’ also cheekily refers to the speculative nature of the art object in consumer culture.

This small piece is made of a large, discarded coat button inset in epoxy putty. I encountered the button on a Philadelphia sidewalk. Its eye caught my eye, so I picked it up. I fashioned the putty to preserve the impression of my hand, reinvesting the object with the hold it had over me. As product of this exchange, the piece en masse is now a unique object made of common materials.

Work as diverse as yours can prove challenging to the viewer. You stated, “the work needs to be discoverable – I like to give the viewer a lot of credit”. What do you feel is the relationship between what you make and how a viewer connects to the work? (You mentioned peoples’ expectations and their suspension thereof)

T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” I’m not sure who should feel more comforted by this statement– the poet or the reader? I’m a fairly self-assured gallery goer. I’m unapologetic about what I like, what I don’t like, and give pause to things I don’t quite understand.   I love a well-crafted argument. As a viewer, I delight in these moments of suspension and speculation. But not everyone likes the same thing.

Viewership is self-interested. We look selectively, spending time with what we choose– or at least we think it’s a choice. These matters of taste and judgment are habituated. We like what we like because we know what we know. But what do we know, or rather, what do we think we know? Moreover, how do we know?

So much ‘knowledge’ is prejudice; assumptions and presumptions about what ‘should be’ prefiguring experience. These value ascriptions are called into question when we confront something unexpected or alien. To recognize something as anomalous, as something that ‘shouldn’t be’ forces one to confront not only what ‘is’, but allows one to see what ‘could be’.   It seems like nonsense. Such encounters exceed reason, but are utterly relatable. The introspection is uncomfortable, but not disastrous. Maybe it’s not so alien. Maybe you’re just seeing it for the first time.

I use simple apprehension to help ease people into more complex processing.   It’s what makes the artwork work. The machination is sophisticated and sardonic, but the objects are colorful and alluring. Some entities may be subtle while others are more immediately recognizable, like a picture of people swimming or a pair of handcuffs. An edifying potential exists between the images and objects. It’s an effect of placement and suggestion. Elements demonstratively reveal the connective tissue that structure semantic feedback loops. This recognition ruptures in irony upon realization.

As an artist, I challenge myself to make work that slightly outpaces my own understanding. Perhaps this admission is less reassuring to a circumspect gallery goer, but I like to give viewers a lot credit (being that I am one myself). Most gallery goers, regardless of their profession or personal history are familiar with design. We interact with products and navigate our surroundings on a daily basis. Through sheer immersion one participates in visual culture. As a cultural participant, one is to some extent visually literate and can access the work should one overcome the hesitation.

Installation shot of work by Mary Claire Ramirez at the Annual Student Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015.  Courtesy of the Artist
Installation shot of work by Mary Claire Ramirez at the Annual Student Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist