Just six years after emigrating to the US from Mexico, Martín Ramírez was institutionalised - first in a jail cell, later in a string of Californian mental hospitals. Isolated physically, emotionally and psychologically for the better part of his adult life, Ramírez found consolation in art. He produced thousands of works from behind locked doors using found materials - scrap paper and paste made from potatoes and saliva - and only his schizophrenic imagination as inspiration. Ramírez’s collages and drawings are now some of the most highly-valued examples of outsider art in North America.
Native stylistics and a highly-decorative aesthetic roots Ramírez’s practice firmly in the folk tradition, while recurring motifs of trains - that favourite muse of the incarcerated - tunnels, horseback riders and the Madonna form part of his own dialect. Ramírez style developed in complete philosophical and creative isolation, and yet it’s heavily laden with intertextuality and sophisticated references to both his Mexican heritage and the brevity of his life as a free man - an alien - in the US.
In 2007, New York City’s American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) hosted the first major retrospective of Ramírez’s work in more than 20 years. New weight was given to the artist’s connection with the broader narrative of American folk and its habitual omission from the mainstream visual arts. The institution next door to AFAM, the Museum of Modern Art, purchased a handful of Ramírez’s drawings a short time later. A blog entry on MoMA’s website specifically cites the AFAM retrospective as catalyst for their renewed interest in the artist.[i]
When I first visited New York in 2008, I noticed the ideological stalemate that existed between MoMA and the Folk Art Museum. While one was comfortable on the cutting-edge, the other seemed to have passed quietly into the land of the dead. The infamous snaking queues of the former were an observable contrast to the notoriously deserted corridors of the latter. When I return to New York in March, the Folk Art Museum will have permanently vacated those premises and downsized to a single Lincoln Square branch, having sold their real estate on West 53rd Street to their next door neighbours last May.
There is an incongruity in the way folk is at once shunned and celebrated in contemporary American culture. Too often its roots are neglected in favour of its aboveground and aboveboard manifestations in fashion, music, design and architecture. This irony comes full circle when figures like Royal Robertson, cast in a similar way as Ramírez to society’s fringe but through self-imposed isolation, are injected back into the mainstream by contemporary artists like Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes and Devendra Banhart. When manipulated correctly, folk sells. It sells as an aesthetic, a mantra, a lifestyle. It sells on postcards and tea towels, just as Ramírez’s work sold to MoMA only after the Folk Art Museum tested the waters. As the essence of ‘real folk’ is lost to the periphery of memory, so too is the history of social rejection, racial persecution and spiritual isolation that premise the polished, quaint version of the genre we are presented with today.
[i] See The Drawn Work of Martín Ramírez, Maura Lynch, August 5 2010, http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/08/05/the-drawn-world-of-martin-ramirez (accessed 14 Feb 2012)