Christina Ramberg

Christina Ramberg has been abstracting and re-presenting various portions of the human (usually female) body for 20 years. Her figures are often wrapped, draped, or bound; they are incomplete and unidentifiable, as well as half-dressed, provoking readings at once comical, sinister, and erotic. This retrospective follows Ramberg’s work from its pop-vernacular, cartoonish beginnings with the Chicago Imagists in the late ’60s, through larger works of the ’70s in which the body of the subject is represented by arrangements of semiabstract cloth draperies or furniture, and culminates with a group of recent architectonic abstractions that mark Ramberg’s return to painting after a four-year hiatus.

The exhibition begins with a trio of very small paintings from 1968, two of which have been executed on the backs of dressing table mirrors. On one side, the viewer sees the reflection of his or her own face; on the other, Ramberg’s diminutive rendering of the back of an ostensibly female head, primping her stylized hairdo. The standing female torso in Black Widow, 1971, wears a black satin brassiere-corset combination, thighs girded by a sheen of support hose, panties decorated by a tiny red rose. Her upraised arms disappear into the folds of a pullover blouse that also hides her head. The picture reveals the usually hidden paraphernalia of support,enhancement, and restraint that help realize the body’s public contours, while obscuring the identity of the person wearing them.

Many of Ramberg’s paintings from the early ’70s include anonymous female figures wearing elaborately rendered foundation garments; the works comprise a prescient reflection on the social constraints upon the feminine role. In subsequent works, such as Vertical Amnesia, 1980, the central figure is constructed as an arrangement of vestments and bent wooden chair forms. Here the voyeuristic references have been superceded by a more general concern with the fragmentation of beauty: the precariously balanced collection of discreet elements seems held together as much by the consistent surface treatment of Ramberg’s smooth, almost powdery acrylic on masonite as by any structural logic within the composition.

The catalogue essays by Dennis Adrian and Carol Becker find varying degrees of feminist gender-critique in Ramberg’s art. More apparent in the artist’s work before 1983 is its meticulous, obsessively crafted topographic detail, epitomizing the so-called “finish-fetish” associated with I m agism. During the next five years Ramberg stayed away from her easel, concentrating instead on quiltmaking. The single example shown here, Japanese Showcase, 1984, renders the exquisite if rather mannered finish characteristic of her previous painting in satin.

Ramberg began painting again in 1986, and a group of untitled acrylic-on-canvas works from 1987 is characterized by much looser paint-handling, complex tactile and tonal inflections in gray, black, and creamy white, and highly abstracted depictions of skeletal or architectural lines and forms. It is as if Ramberg, having allocated her obsession with tightly controlled surfaces to the lustrous materials of her quilts, were freed to explore the qualities of touch and viscosity available in paint. These recent pictures transcend Ramberg’s earlier work; they are eloquent embodiments of the flesh of painting itself.

Buzz Spector