New York

Carol Rama

Esso Gallery

This show was the first solo American exhibition by Carol Rama, a cult figure in her native Italy since 1945, when her premiere exhibition at age twenty-seven was immediately shut down by police on the grounds of obscenity. While the work from that show disappeared, a number of drawings on view here dated from the ’30s and early to mid ’40s. The chaotic post-Mussolini period was clearly no friendlier than that of dictatorial order to so monstrous a spirit as Rama’s, who speaks in an interview of her profound desire to “incazzare tutti” (piss everyone off). These early works give a pretty good idea of the kind of thing that might well have done the trick. In the watercolor Dorina, 1940, a black and green snake emerges from the vagina of a wild-eyed woman with leaves entwined in her hair; she looks like a mad and degraded parody of a figure from Botticelli’s Primavera. Just as wicked as the imagery itself is the way it’s nailed down on the page, with a concision Bill Traylor might have envied but also a bare-nerved rawness closer to Antonin Artaud. But I’m not sure Artaud ever really attained this degree of submission to the dissociative power of the drawn line, the way he did with language. What else could Rama’s snake be about, if not the power of the drawn line to enter the body, to emerge from the body, and above all to break down the viewer’s ability to know whether the body is expressing something or being possessed by it?

By the ’50s, perhaps surprisingly, Rama had found her way from such scabrous imagery to participation in the Movimento per l’Arte Concreta (MAC), which attempted to import an international idiom of constructivist abstraction to Italian art after the long decades of inward-looking and often provincial Novecentismo that flourished under fascism. For a time she made abstract assemblages exploiting the actual qualities of materials. I wonder how Rama found her way back, then, to the raw style of drawing that characterized her work in the ’40s. In any case this exhibition was dominated by work dated 1996 that would appear to be in complete continuity with the impulses that got her into trouble fifty years earlier. To be sure, much of the imagery is now a little more ambiguous, and its humor has grown sweeter; but the line that determines that imagery is just as direct and decisive as ever. Indeed, in several new drawings titled “Masturbator,” 1996, the tongue looks much the same as the snake does in Dorina, only colored red, and functions similarly, violating the very face that it nonetheless gleefully expresses. In the most numerous of the recent drawings here, a series titled “Lingue” (Tongues, 1996), the tongue (of which multitudes float across each sheet) becomes a kind of red island from which a nose and eye—rather Egyptian in aspect, recalling the archaic-looking, elongated forms favored by Nancy Spero—sprout like trees. These new pieces have been done on top of old architectural plans and engineering diagrams, among other things, as if to mock the neatness and method, the public utility these represent, with her own uncontainable impulses.

This show offered just a first small glimpse of a large career, which makes it difficult to know just how to grasp Rama’s art—but it’s clear enough we’re going to have to, sooner or later.

Barry Schwabsky