In February, a couple days after making a date to visit Oakland painter Sofie Ramos’ studio, I went to a poetry reading at The Lab. I sat next to Lyn Hejinian, who read that evening, and saw that she held in her hands galleys of her newest book, The Unfollowing.
Greedy, I asked if I could see it -- and was immediately drawn to the cover: a wild collage with rich texture and vibrant pastels. “Who did this cover?” I asked. Lyn told me, “An artist named Sofie Ramos.” I sighed and smiled at the same time, in love with the world for being so stupidly coherent.
But this wasn't actually just coincidence, I found when I visited Ramos in her West Oakland studio inside the CTRL+SHFT collective. I mentioned my encounter with Hejinian, and Ramos eagerly referenced her book The Language of Inquiry and one of its key texts, “Rejection of Closure.”
“Rejection of Closure” is a classic argument against the conventional shape of a certain kind of mainstream poem (Hejinian calls them “smug lyric poems”). The poet in these "smug lyric poems," shares a couple of sentiments, has an epiphany and finishes by tying the string on the whole sequence with a pat ending. The gravitas in such moments is optional but inevitably banal.
In Hejinian’s essay, works are praised, on the other hand, for their resistance to easily determined meanings. Open texts invite participation and reject the hierarchical scenario by which a reader comes to the text to experience a series of meaningful propositions.
Indeed, even the hierarchy of a work being “finished” is contested: “the implication (correct) is that the words and the ideas... continue beyond the work. One has simply stopped because one has run out of units or minutes, and not because a conclusion has been reached nor everything said.”
In Ramos’ practice, process is emphasized over progress. That is, her paintings, collages and installations don’t seem to be ever quite finished, not even when they move from the walls of the studio (where artworks are supposed to live until they enter the exhibition space) to the walls of the gallery (where they are supposed to become a commodity.)
In her studio, we watch a stop-motion video Ramos made using footage from her MFA thesis exhibition. The swiftly moving video shows the transformations Ramos made to the installation over the duration of the show. The individual elements in the installation are constantly in flux, as is the overall arrangement of the paintings and collages inside it.
To further underscore the emphasis on the unfinished in Ramos’ work, she explains that her titles are always working titles, and frequently change. Her titles also eschew capitalization. She explains that lower-case titles “point to the transient and transformative nature of both the title and the work, and also to try to keep them in the realm of everyday objects rather than elevating them as proper nouns.” It’s as if the proper noun is the emblem of a fine art market, a domain her strident devotion to contingency and changing contexts refuses.
While the “closure” of traditional narrative and forms of meaning-making are rejected in Ramos’ work, her paintings are enormously expressive -- they include not only a lot of information but a lot of play. In what is now known as pipe cleaner painting, two canvases are affixed to each other. The minimal and austere lines of the top painting are countered by its bright pink and red colors, subtle variations in the thickness of the lines and the rings atop the canvas which Ramos says, that day, read as “eyelashes.” As we talk, I begin to see how the two paintings do suggest a funny and gruesome face.
In party hat painting, Ramos has affixed three separate canvases to each other. The largest grounds the succession of canvasses, which form an awkward, rhythmic column. Each canvas has a totally distinct compositional field. Bright circles against dark green suggest polka dots. In the middle, a more textured and rich blue background is crossed by intersecting yellow lines -- it’s a change in mood as much as a departure into a distinct geometry. Finally, a triangle-shaped canvas crowns the composition -- the party hat! This smaller canvas is partially covered with the pattern of a standard red and white tablecloth, a material both familiar and, in Ramos’ pictorial economy, quite strange.
Like Bay Area Painting Right Now alum Sam Spano, Ramos invests in the “domestic” as a trope in her work. But where Spano conceived of a new palette derived from gustatory pleasure, and symbolic animal avatars for his changing moods, Ramos’ paintings approach the economy of "home” more literally. For one, her paintings are often made with acrylic house paint. Capitalizing on the thinness of such paint, Ramos accrues layer after layer, the thin material gaining density while embedding the repetition of her brush.
One painting in progress, which Ramos tentatively titles bath mat painting, literally appropriates a household object: an ordinary bath mat, which Ramos paints with successive layers of bold blue house paint. The effect is a richly textured painting, the materials hearkening to something so ordinary it’s finally quite strange.
Together, we talked about lived spaces and the weird way that they “have” history, a history that isn’t as much narrative as it is accretion over the years, like the successive layers of blue paint on the bathmat. No one has ever said, probably, “If this bath mat could talk...” but this is the extended meaning of Ramos’ use of such objects.
History, like the poem, like the painting, seduces us with a promise of coherence we have to negotiate as artists or readers. Turning to face Sofie Ramos’ works is not an encounter with the smug, pat shape of a normal poem, a normal story. Her works are nimble, moving and open.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.