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Like many artists associated with the Chicago Imagists, Christina Ramberg favored a deceptively modest scale, whether in paintings or in works on paper. The drawings shown here, most from early in her career (she was born in Kentucky in 1946 and died in 1995 in Chicago), are small, and the draftsmanship does not call attention to itself. But their intelligence and humor are formidable.
Dating from 1967 to 1974, the drawings are generally executed in felt-tip or ballpoint pen, sometimes lightly augmented with colored pencil. Most feature half a dozen or more diminutive figures. They evoke person-shaped semaphores, glyphs in a language of corporal discipline and its variously comic failures. Several drawings look a little like pages from instruction manuals—some for lifesaving, although the victim seems generally to be rescuing herself, others for American Sign Language, as demonstrated by languidly curving fingers with pointy painted nails.
Subjects include women’s torsos, hands and heads seen from the back. Underwear and hairdos are important; faces are never shown. Often one head sports two hairstyles at war with each other. Likewise bellicose, girdles and bras recall a time when undergarments were all sleek curves and weaponized cones, although Ramberg also depicts lingerie that doubles as bandages, and there are several variations on blindfolds. The combat mode extends to a few examples of killer heels. But bodies in Ramberg’s drawings reliably give all these constraints the slip: bits of flesh and hair escape, bulging out, springing up. Women twist around, squirming out of their bondage.
It’s not easy; they get stuck, and, in the next rendering, try again. In contrast to the casual-seeming works on paper (which included a few intaglio prints), the paintings are finished to a degree that could be called fetishized. Corset/Urns (1970), an acrylic on eight small Masonite panels, comprises a sequence of forms that cover the spectrum from explicitly corsetlike to decidedly urn-ish, with much in between. Inky black with spiky pink highlights, they are prim and sexily sinister— a very funny combination. An untitled series of 6-inch-square acrylic paintings shows an androgynous figure struggling out of a nondescript garment that resembles by turns a pajama top, a sweater and a straightjacket.
In the latter series, the cartoonish outlines—drawn in felt-tip pen—and the figures’ odd, not-quite-erotic predicaments suggest a connection to John Wesley. The artist and illustrator Richard Lindner (a corset-maker’s son, whose commercial Pop images circulated widely in the 1960s) also seems pertinent to Ramberg’s work. Nearer at hand is the Chicago cohort that included Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and Roger Brown. Yet Ramberg’s draftsmanship—deft, dark and reticent—seems sui generis. The last solo show of her work was more than 10 years ago; there have been hardly more than half a dozen in all. It would be wonderful to see more.
Metamorphosis: Christina Ramberg and the Imagists
by Deborah E. Gimelson
These days, the Chelsea galleries are often more concerned with commerce than art, so it’s refreshing to find a show that, however small, puts high value on politics, irreverence, humor – and social change.
On the north border of the gallery district, there is a handful of art dealers who are determined that art not only be for sale, but that it also be informed by the somewhat outdated notions of message, talent, and originality. Christina Ramberg: Corset Urns and Other Inventions, 1968-1980, now at the David Nolan Gallery in New York City, showcases fantastic feminist images, and sparks a lively visual conversation about the place of those images both in an emerging culture of feminism and within the larger pantheon of visual history.
Ramberg, born in the 1940s, came early to the pop/feminist camp. She got her B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s and early 1970s, where she studied with Ray Yoshida. Yoshida encouraged the use of commercial and pop imagery, which spawned a group called The Imagists. Their work differed from the coolness of the New York and European Pop Artists with figurative paintings and drawings in high, saturated color. Plundering the pages of comic books, periodicals and lingerie catalogues for material, Ramberg joined with artists like Ed Paschke, Roger Brown, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nisson as the front line of a truly American Pop Art that had shock value for its sexiness and no-holds-barred rebelliousness.
Ramberg’s images have a stark simplicity to them (none of the bodies have faces), which, if they were not so urgently incomplete, would render them annoyingly didactic. The sketches read like quickly made “to do” lists to be mined for larger work – should the bra be on this way or that way; do the high heels enhance or cripple; do the fingernails mean something different with or without polish? There is a struggle about what to do with a newly-liberated female body: hair goes in every direction, underwear becomes a medieval torture device, and, especially in the paintings, no figure is in clothing that quite fits or is worn correctly. Although the majority of the figures are identified as women, there is an androgynous feel to them, something undefined.
In Corset Urns, 1975, an eight-piece painting, generally considered Ramberg’s masterpiece, the line between the vessel and what is being contained is completely wiped out, implying an ongoing metamorphosis and dialogue. The paintings feel deeper and darker than the drawings; according to the gallery, they were done at night which adds to their deep, reserved quality. This work is, as the title of the exhibit suggests, invention in a shifting era; at its most simplistic, it is the artist inventing herself in the context of roiling social change.
Ramberg died in the mid-90s from complications of a degenerative neurological disease; she had stopped making work in the early 1980s. Her reputation is gaining ground within the Imagists and in the world at large. The Art Institute of Chicago showed a whole room of Ramberg in recent years, and David Nolan, who also shows Jim Nutt, is working hard to erase the tendency of the critical community to shout “regionalism” when discussing these Chicago artists. First and foremost, the show spotlights that there were talented females who were key in the Imagist movement.
“There were very few women within the Imagists,” said Katherine Chan, director of the gallery. “This was an opportunity to show that they had an equally strong voice.”
BY KEN JOHNSON
Works by Christina Ramberg and Victoria Gitman, in these excellent separate shows, are linked by a shared preoccupation with fetishism and women.
A fetish, in Freudian terms, is an inanimate object that someone finds erotic because of its intimate association with the human body. In the case of Ms. Ramberg, the sadly underknown Chicago Imagist who died in 1995, the objects in question are high-heel shoes, bras, corsets and similar accouterments as well as more overtly sadomasochistic forms of bondage.
In many funny and weird cartoon studies on paper, she pictures torsos, feet, hands and heads encumbered by such psychologically charged devices. In “Pinched Corset” (1971), one of her elegant small panel paintings, the index finger of a woman’s hand probes between the shiny black fabric of a tight corset and the otherwise naked back of another woman. Painted in severely muted colors — except for the red fingernails — it is slyly suggestive and wonderfully mysterious.
Ms. Gitman, who lives in Florida, paints life-size pictures of beaded purses with a verisimilitude that verges on magic realism. With a fine-tipped brush, she renders every tiny, glittering glass bead and the beautiful mosaic patterns that myriad beads add up to. The type of fetish that Karl Marx identified — the commodity — naturally comes to mind. But the purse also may be seen as the feminine equivalent of the cigar. Sometimes a purse is just a purse, but in Ms. Gitman’s hands it is certainly something more.