Art Review by Gessy Alvarez
I’ve always been attracted to the “outsider” female artists. These women who bravely defy conventions and civil decorum in order to create work they believe in. Having grown up in a conservative family with enormous pressure to not only conform but to also take care of my family before taking care of myself, I look up to these women as examples of how to exist beyond what you are told you need to be.
Earlier this summer, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) featured the irreverent works of Louise Lawler in an exhibit entitled “Why Pictures Now.” Lawler is a constant editor. She reframes or restages her work, and, in doing this, revisits her artistic intentions and gives new life to her creations. All her reworkings are structured by the limitations of space for display. She births and rebirths her work which gives her the opportunity to continually expand her boundaries.
Another show at MOMA which took place this summer was entitled Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstractions, which ended in August. The show drew from MOMA’s collection, it featured nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, prints, textiles, and ceramics by more than 50 artists including: Joan Mitchell, Lygia Pape, Agnes Martin (my patron saint), Anne Truitt, Jo Baer, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa, and many more.
Both of these exhibits, though no longer in view, acted as an amuse-bouche for me. I had no idea at the time that I would discover someone who would bring me back to zero. And what I mean by that is when I think I have seen how far female artists have gone and how far they continue to go, I never stop being in awe of artists who work with little or no recognition for long periods of time.
The New Museum is exhibiting works by three contemporary female artists: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kaari Upson, and Elaine Cameron-Weir through September 2017. I do urge you, if you are in NYC and have an opportunity to visit the New Museum, do so before these works are gone.
For this article, I want to focus on the retrospective exhibition of the great Italian artist, Carol Rama. The retrospective is entitled, “Carol Rama: Antibodies.” It’s the largest presentation of Rama’s work in the US to date. It features one hundred of her paintings, objects, and works on paper. Rama died at the age of 97 in 2015. She began creating in the 1930s and 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that she received critical attention for her work.
This was my first encounter with Carol Rama’s work. There are artists whose artworks are ingratiated into our mainstream world through academia and commerce. Rama is not one of these artists. Her work is considered “outsider” art. It’s a term I dislike but one that sometimes acts as a guiding light. I’ve learned to seek artists who have been relegated to this label. This is where you find the works made invisible.
Anything ignored usually threatens conformity. It’s interesting to find so many female artists relegated to outsider art simply because their work does not easily fit within the academic standards of surrealism, minimalism, or any of the many staid –isms.
The “outsider” term is a catch-all. The danger of it is that an artist’s beliefs and intentions may be ignored or silenced but the weight of being considered an “outsider.”
Outsider art is simply a term academia invented in order to neatly package a non-conforming artist for consumption. There is madness implied in all art, but the “outsider” label allows for insanity to be the reason for the art’s creation. This is too simplistic of an explanation. Rather than fit an artist like Carol Rama into the “outsider” aesthetic, I pull her away from it and try to observe her creations on their own.
The first thing I encounter upon entering the gallery is this quote from Rama: ‘I didn’t have any painters as masters, the sense of sin is my master.’
Rama was never trained in the arts, but she did have traumatic experiences to draw inspiration from and art gave her an outlet to express her pain and discoveries about human fragility.
What follows inside the gallery are three walls of watercolor drawings, hung tightly together so that you are confronted with one drawing after another of figures that include men fucking animals, women shitting, women either birthing snakes or using these snakes as dildos, a hairy fat man masturbating, latrines, women with red protruding tongues holding penises bunched up like bananas.
As I study each drawing, a group of women in their thirties enter the gallery. They giggle beside me. The work is shocking, but we are not innocents. We’ve seen graphic sex on display in various entertainment outlets, but Rama’s work features visuals that are still taboo. We are still ashamed of bodily functions and genitalia. We still giggle at the sight of unencumbered lasciviousness. Like children, we giggle and point. This reaction creates a distance from the subject matter that repels or shames us.
These drawings were part of Rama’s first exhibition in Turin in 1945. The show never opened. Police confiscated the works and shut it down before it could begin. Rama only recovered some of the confiscated works. These early watercolors weren’t shown again until 1980 at an exhibition at the Palazzo Reale Milano.
In the catalog for the New Museum exhibition, “Antibodies,” Carol Rama is quoted: “When I was twelve years old I went almost every day to a psychiatric clinic to see someone, and there a great happiness was born because I didn’t understand that I was in a madhouse environment and the freedom I found in these people with their tongues sticking out, their legs apart or crouching down or in some other position: by now any person was more important than my family, I had abdicated and as it were renounced it. That’s where my early works originated from. And I saw these women, squatting on the ground, with their legs spread, their asses in the air, and I believed the entire world looked like this, no? That helped me a lot.”
The influence of artists like Carol Rama is heavily present in contemporary art. You can see the undercurrent of her experimentations with assemblage informing contemporary video and installation art.
Rama has little regard for expectations. She explores suffering, finds irreverence in the sacred, and makes us confront what we hold as taboo.
It’s not easy to break away from the security of family, lovers, and friends but artists like Carol Rama have done that in the past and continue to do it now. Art is a visual representation of this continued struggle to break away and exist as an individual. Along with these works are the spirits that brought them into existence. The spirits of idealism, individuality, outrageousness, fearlessness, danger, violence (in all forms: psychological, emotional, and, in worse case scenarios, physical). In the contemporary art world, these are necessary traits for all artists no matter what you identify as. But for women creating in the past, action demanded that they wear a coat of madness. Because only a crazy person would create something that can bring you shame. And this madness robe demanded autonomy and commitment. It demanded enormous risk-taking in order to create beyond consensus and convention.
Want to learn more Carol Rama, listen to our podcast – Episode 5 here.