Paul Ramírez Jonas: LFL Gallery, New York, NY

Paul Ramirez Jonas "album: 50 state summits",

c-print, silkscreen and india ink, 55 pages - 24 " x 19.5" each

 

Paul Ramirez Jonas is an artist preoccupied with failure and hope. In the past he has taken the history of scientific invention, technological production, and notions of progress as source material. Within that history he finds those stories that do not trumpet success or the salvation of mankind, but murmur defeat and unfulfilled potential. It is this potential, or, the state of being in which the best possible outcome still hovers on the horizon, that circumnavigates all of Ramirez Jonas' works in his latest exhibition “The Earth Seen from Above” of photographs, video, and sculpture at LFL Gallery. Importantly, all of the works address notions of travel and exploration.


circumnavigation after magellan is a seemingly mile-long travel itinerary. Ramirez Jonas called a travel agent and planned a trip which exactly follows Ferdinand Magellan's in the late 1500's. Ramirez Jonas' lengthy yellow travel log echoes Magellan's unexpectedly long journey. He mistakenly believed he could cross the Pacific in a few days--it took four months and ultimately led to his death in the Philippines. The storms Magellan and his crew undoubtedly faced are represented in this exhibition by nature becomes history, a series of 26 plastic colored flags with a date, a satellite photo of a storm, and the storm's name printed on each. In meteorology, as in life, if a storm is big enough and powerful enough, its name makes it into history and lives forever. If a storm is only minor, its name gets recycled.


Another form of log-making is evidenced by another day. This work is comprised of a row of three television monitors placed edge to edge above eye level. This arrangement evokes arrival and departure monitors at an airport or train station. Displayed on each screen is the countdown until sunrise in 90 cities around the world, which is generated by a small computer control box that the artist designed. As the sun rises in one location, it drops off screen and the next in line takes its place. The countdown is relentless and ever-changing. If one were able to travel quickly enough they could leave New York City and arrange to meet their friend in Canas Gordas at sunrise. The speed necessary to achieve this meeting would require the supersonic speed of the Concorde, the subject of ghost of progress. Ramirez Jonas built a small model of the (in)famous Concorde and attached it to the left handlebar of his bike and attached a video camera to the other. He cruised around downtown Honduras, the little model plane in the foreground of the streets Ramirez Jonas biked through. The perfectly white, aerodynamic, super-plane sharply contrasts the city's streets. The lofty modernist dreams which the Concorde embodies are dashed by the dilapidated modernist buildings, beaten-up cars, and glimpses of street life which are sprinkled throughout the artist's ride. ghost of progress is displayed on a television monitor placed on the floor. For the LFL exhibition it was placed towards the rear of the space and in a corner. Just in front of ghost of progress and placed in the center of the gallery was a large sculpture/satellite/musical instrument titled rocinate.


The artist hopes to launch rocinate into space (after he finds a proper launching vehicle) as the first satellite that will represent all of the countries without a space program. The flags of those countries will be painted on the object's sides. rocinate is built out of a group of pipes of varying heights arranged on top of several snare drums, which are mounted on top of a kick drum. A cymbal sticks out jauntily to the side, towering over the group of pipes. Three large solar panels petal out to form the base. Every 15 minutes or so this one-man, satellite-band plays “It's a Small World.” Ramirez Jonas' rather quotidian version of a high-tech satellite may be temporarily grounded, but will hopefully represent those places, such as Honduras, currently without the means to explore and lay claims to outer space. album: 50 state summits also represents a project in-process.


Ramirez Jonas is slowly going to the highest point in every U.S. state. He hikes, climbs, or drives up to a highest point and takes a picture of himself waving a red and white flag that reads “Open.” The photo is taken with the artists' back to the camera as he looks out over the vista. Going to a state's highpoint is a past-time begun in the 1960's by a man named Frank Ashely. He was the first man on record to visit the highpoints in the 48 contiguous states, and he later published the guidebook Highpoints of the Sates which detailed the highpoint locations across the country. Now there is a group of like-minded individuals called the “highpointers” who grew out of Ashley's adventures. Ramirez Jonas embarks on the same trips and routes taken by the highpointers-who probably take pictures of themselves at each point as well. In sharp contrast to the traditional image of the male explorer driving his nation's flag into the ground he has “discovered,” Ramirez Jonas' unassuming, bright-yellow parka-clad figure, signals that what he has found belongs to everyone- if they have the impulse and the means to go there too. Ultimately this work is to take the form of an over-sized album which contains the images of Ramirez Jonas at all 50 highpoints. At the moment, all of the highpoint pictures are exhibited in rows on the wall, the name of the place written below the image. These pictures are co-mingled with blank pages that have only the name of the place, signaling that the artist has not yet gone there. Perhaps most telling about this work is the ratio of filled to empty pages. Clearly, Ramirez Jonas still has a lot of work to do and must travel great distances to complete this project. While 50 state summits is in reality a project which follows many others' footsteps who have reached those points before him, Ramirez Jonas' journey gives precedence to the incomplete and unseen places still waiting to be visited and in so doing leaves things open-ended.


The artist chose to single out one highpoint as the basis for another piece titled amnesia. Here the artist is seen at the highpoint of Guadalupe Peak in Texas, from which you can see Mexico. The artist is seen again in his yellow parka but he also holds a flag in each hand. amnesia consists of 7 photographs in a row which depict Ramirez Jonas signaling the letters to the word “amnesia.” This piece carries the tone of the other works in “The Earth Seen from Above” which are not so much about the grand narrative of exploration and conquer, but rather those places that were conquered and have not had the rich bounties of smaller countries to bolster their power.


“The Earth Seen from Above” implies that when not looking straight ahead or circling the space around you, a very different picture of the world unfolds. This picture is filled with tall gleaming office-buildings and ramshackle push-carts, bicycles and Concordes, the exotic and mundane, the powerful and powerless. Ramirez Jonas is building a body of critical and functioning works that give voice to those places and stories rarely seen or heard. His works speak less about struggle and defeat and more about potential and hope. In so doing, he illuminates a most poignant aspect of human nature. His works are not about how or why something went wrong but the poetry inherent in creating something, watching it unravel, and beginning again.

Kelly Taxter

New York, New York

2003


 

Paul Ramírez Jonas, "Rocinante", mixed media