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Paul Ramirez-Jonas, Ricci Albenda
by Gregory Volk
In his historically-minded work, Paul Ramirez-Jonas continues to focus on things that did not work out so well, on examples of past technology that faltered, or became obsolete, or that tried for, but did not manage to reach, either an overarching heroism or an enduring popularity. His subject matter here included one whopping disaster--the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in 1898--and whirligigs, spinning adornments atop houses and barns that were briefly in vogue around the turn of the century. There is something comical and absurdist in the way Ramirez-Jonas recalls and transforms such dated materials, but he succeeds in investing them with a surprising poetic potential, while also destabilizing a distinctly United States mythos--namely that the past has been characterized by a succession of triumphs, world-beating innovations and trailblazing achievements, framed as an incessant, onwards and upwards march toward progress. Among other things, Ramirez-Jonas's rediscovery of such failures interjects a welcome sense of humility and a poignant anti-heroism into his historical inquiries.
The first piece in his exhibition featured a life-size drawing of the propeller on the infamous battleship the USS Maine, remember the maine, 1995. Composed on a large sheet of paper, it spilled down the wall and out onto the floor, extending into the gallery's space--an indication of how this particular historical episode hasn't really disappeared, but instead has had lasting consequences, especially in terms of the U.S. relationship with Latin America. The USS Maine, it will be recalled, was blown up in the Havana harbor on its maiden voyage under mysterious circumstances. Its destruction immediately became a rallying point for an aggrieved nation about to become a regional and then a global superpower, all of which was egged on by a partisan, chest-thumping press, and especially the figure of William Randolph Hearst. It directly led to the Spanish-American War, and by extension to the imperial and, oftentimes, brutal involvement that the U.S. has had with Latin America. Even though this ship has long since slipped from the national consciousness--and in his work in this vein, Ramirez-Jonas is performing a kind of psychic archaeological excavation, recovering things that used to be immensely important but that have largely become soluble in history--its repercussions have continued throughout much of the 20th century.
In Ramirez-Jonas's deadpan, matter-of-fact version, he avoids any traces of subjectivity or personal interpretation. His 15-foot propeller has the look of a mechanical blueprint, or perhaps of an engineering study for the Naval War College. Nevertheless, there is an instantaneous transformation of represented image into metaphor, which is something that often happens with Ramirez-Jonas's work: in the midst of their conceptually tight framework, his objects are allowed to have their own multi-faceted resonance. This particular propeller has, so to speak, propelled a great deal more than one doomed ship, but also invasions, occupations, political manipulation, south-of-the-border corporate profiteering, and rampant cultural domination. It has propelled a colonial tendency in the U.S. to see Latin America as "our" backyard and, one imagines, it has a personal resonance for Ramirez Jonas, himself, who was born in the United States, grew up in Honduras and, thus, belongs equally to both cultural worlds. It is also a reminder of an expensive and triumphal technology that wound up as defunct smithereens.
Ramirez Jonas's drawing led to another rendition of the battleship, but this time, as a ship in a corked bottle. There is something hilarious about seeing such a world-changing disaster suddenly transformed into an innocent knickknack with folk art overtones. Two scales clash: one immense and monumental, the other miniaturized and contained. Two completely different orientations are conflated as well. Ramirez Jonas's drawing looks like an outsized engineering blueprint, while his fastidiously detailed ship in a bottle reaches back to 19th century craft and small-town Americana. By far, the more standard orientation is for North Americans to look to Latin America for folk art, crafts, and collectibles, essentially as a source for exotic cultural artifacts. Yet here, Ramirez Jonas does the same thing in reverse, a deft maneuver that implicitly equalizes power relationships and that winds up being quietly, yet richly, subversive. To top it all off, both the ship in a bottle and the drawing of the propeller (when folded) fit neatly into a portable book. The whole piece is a reeling, cross-genre admixture of presence and absence; historical gravity and forgetfulness; geopolitical maneuvering and downright playfulness.
Ramirez Jonas's drawing of a once-spinning thing--a ship's propeller--segued into many other spinning things: a series of perpetual motion machines, some on the walls and some on the floors, in which tiny whirligigs fashioned into quaint shapes (a shield, flags, two busts) whir uncontrollably when set in motion by one of two systems. The first (occurring with the works on the walls) makes use of radiometer technology. As intense light projected from an incandescent bulb strikes small black and white shapes made of ceramic paper within a vacuum sealed bottle, it causes them to spin; additionally, the bottles in this series contain 19th century signifiers such as a log cabin or a wreath of laurel. The other power source consists of large white balloons on the floor that slowly emit air, once again causing the tiny shapes (here made of steel) to spin. In an era of high-tech obsessions, Ramirez Jonas's kinetic sculptures flaunt their low-tech status. They don't posit a future filled with wondrous achievements, but rather recall and recast the past, by using technology that belonged to that era and by using forms suffused with historical memory, even if they are only a long forgotten fad. All of these whirring inventions brought a quietly manic motion into the gallery, along with a distinct fragility: everything seemed intact and functional, but also inherently breakable. Once, a century ago, it was the wind that set these decorations spinning; now it's something entirely different and you get a disconcerting feeling of temporariness and mortality. These whirligigs are trying for a fresh vigor, but it's a circumscribed and contained one, and here Ramirez Jonas's evocation of energy and possibilities colliding with startling limitations is also in the deep grain of the American experience--think of Ishmael at the end of Moby Dick, for example, or of Edward Hopper's paintings.
In the gallery's Projects Room, Ricci Albenda presented a series of eight deceptively straightforward paintings all consisting of the word "people". in black lettering on a white background. Pairing Albenda's installation, titled do you see what i see?, with Ramirez Jonas's work was an inspired decision. Both artists are involved with a fresh kind of conceptualism, one which remains idea-based but which is also quirky, personal, occasionally humorous, and--importantly--visually engaging. At first glance, Albenda's paintings seem identical, and one only gradually discovers the subtle variations between them in terms of the size, shape, and tilt of the letters, all painted in the same serif font. His methodology was to paint one master version, and then a series of others based on looking at this one through either his right or left eye at distances of 12-1/2' and 25' respectively. An additional work, my mind's eye, involved adjusting the original version so that it fit precisely into an underlying grid, and, in the gallery's now famous peep hole, there was a stereoscopic version incorporating the idiosyncrasies of both of his eyes.
On one level, Albenda's installation was an investigation into sight itself, here shown to be not a unified thing at all, but an amalgamation of different images and perceptual abilities. What is startling is how these seemingly innocuous paintings are suffused with subjectivity; they are the record of Albenda's own two differing eyes operating in space, and, as such, they are completely inscribed with his own physical presence and with the nuances of a body. This subjectivity, this reminder of a person, perfectly fits with Albenda's chosen word "people," with its intimations of multitudes and diversity. The more time one spent in the installation, the more that repeating word became elastic and ever-changing, even celebratory and incantatory, with an austere and humane poetics all its own.
Brooklyn, New York
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