H. Ramsay

Cliff Michel Gallery

H. Ramsay’s wood-and-mixed-media tableau are sneaky-smart satires that address the ways people relate to each other; they’re funny and thought-provoking. In Lesson, 1988, the artist places round lumps painted as oranges on seats in a classroom. The square-backed chairs seem more attentive than their occupants. One chair has a wooden apple on it. The instructor on the podium—an orange—stands beside a blackboard with an image of an orange drawn on it. The piece is flanked by classical columns; it appears to be in a stable and permanent condition. But look down the sides: the tableau is set on wheels, making the forward-leaning aisles of chairs seem like seats on a bus—education moves, evolves. Ramsay hopscotches from visual joke to social parody to philosophical farce.

Her pesky intelligence turns to intimate relationships with a more analytic, at times self-indulgent eye. In Open Door, 1988, she places a chair with several oversized keys on and around it in front of an open doorway. On the other side, a second chair sits: a keyhole is at the heart of its backrest. This parable of consent and vulnerability has an aptly awkward recognizability to it. Building essays more than narratives, Ramsay’s found and fabricated household objects, miniature or full-scale, take on a strangely self-evident symbolism. A candle burns in the window. An hourglass sits by a telephone. Chains become rather obvious ciphers for attachment, empty cups for desire, magnets for compulsive behavior, guns for violation—the various exaggerated demands of romantic need. Cross-referencing this is the straight-backed chair (and other four-legged furniture), which seems to be a stand-in for puritan selfhood—stiff, formal, and uncomfortable. This romantic/puritan dialectic underlying American emotional life finds its near-perfect delineation in the deadpan exuberance of Ramsay’s constructions.

A deeper dialogue can be found in a second paired set of iconography. On one hand, windows, doorways, belljars, cages, mirrors, and blackboards act as the media through which one’s self-image is translated. On the other, the taut rope that is found in many of her pieces represents a directed, purposeful balancing of tensions. Consider Ramsay’s elegant and elemental World Apart, 1988, which seems to take place in a polar world: its overall color is a cool white shifting to blue, its floor fractures like an ice-floe. Two chairs are held in a state of tension by a rope that stretches between them through a window. A candle rests on the sill. The work is both obvious and obscure—the tug-of-war as a state of emotional engagement that is never won.

Jae Carlsson