By MIKE MAIZELS September 27, 2023
Tropical Apex, now on view at Jeffrey Deitch New York, represents the latest stop on a meteoric rise for Bony Ramirez, a proudly self taught, New York based artist who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at the age of 13. Ramirez began creating artworks in the limited spare time afforded him working in the family’s construction business at the end of the last decade, and found artistic trajectory reshuffled and then accelerated by the COVID shutdowns. His first solo show, an online-only affair, paved the way for IRL, which turned into major exhibitions in real time.
Whether because of his self-taught pedigree or his distinctive vision, Ramirez’s work brings together recognizable notes from precedent works, but the ideas manifest with refreshing originality. Helio Oiticica’s Tropicália installations hover in the background, both in the physical exhibition design as well as in the equatorial centricity of the concept. The paintings and assemblages embody stylistic similarities to work by Jasper Johns or the recently deceased Fernando Botero, but the vision is all Ramirez. The artist's syncretic figures are full of small magical touches, too individual to be sourced elsewhere. The clam shell is pivotal here—whether manifesting as figural ears, as sculptural encrustations, or, in one salient example, as a Caribbean baptismal font. The clam is an ur figure of the tropical aquascape, but it isn’t tourist-friendly white sand and palm trees. It is ungainly, hard and awkward from the outside, chromatic and radiant on the interior. It echoes with memories of endless centuries of lapping waves.
For Ramirez, echoic memories like these are both personal and collective. The show opens with at the bust of a taxidermy bull mounted onto a wooden framework and adorned with clamshell cojones, an oblique self portrait (or animal familiar) for Ramirez himself. El Overachiever is surrounded by a portrait gallery of shamanic creatures. Father and son huddle together as bipedal iguanas. A female figure wrapped in fur spouts vines for hands and hooves for feet. Themes of eating and slaughtering recur (see the larger idiom of Antropófago), as does the impetus to reshuffle strictures of the colonial legacy. Courtly wallpaper samples join collages with cut out paper figures, a mediumistic device Ramirez hit upon when he was too poor to afford his own panels to paint on. But, in the best possible way, the figures are too strange to be overly didactic. They appear allegorical, but per the artist, are simply self contained. They look back on the viewer impassively, as curious about you as you are about them.
The most provocative part of the exhibition is its finale upstairs—an expansive installation dedicated to the bracing sport of cockfighting. A taxidermy rooster has had the traditional spurs replaced with full kitchen knives, strutting around an enclosed arena as the newly crowned “cock of the walk.” The eviscerated loser (depicted in painted panel overhead and visible in discarded taxidermy underneath the stairwell downstairs) slumps eviscerated in defeat. To the victor go the spoils, as they say. Ramirez considers it a meditation on his memories of deep Dominican masculinity—performative, toxic and traditional all at once. The work complicates the received narrative of marginalized identities simply needing more time in the sun. Monsters lurk at the margins of memory, too.
And this where, for this reviewer, Apex hits its most interesting notes. Ramirez insists that his vision as an artist is informed by an active absence: he has not returned to his isle of origin since departing half a lifetime ago. The project of reconstructing a tightly memorialized past resonates with the work of another self taught artist of eidetic memory, the painter Franco Magnani. Those in the art world may not recall the name (pun intended), but Magnani rose briefly to public renown after the publication of a case study on his work and mind by the eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks. As Sacks describes, Magnani fled his native town in the Italian countryside in flight from invading Allied armies in the midst of World War II, never to return. Later in life, creative impulses bordering on compulsion gave forth a voluminous body of paintings depicting the scenes of his native Pontinto. Architectural and landscape details are recalled with credulity-straining verism, but the painting themselves feel more like scenography than scenery. The lighting and space are pressed naively against the surface, reflecting perhaps a lack of technical training or (what’s more interesting) the compression of memory. While Magnani’s work is much less interpretive than Ramirez’s, their works share a hard-to-shake quality of inertness and remove. Places and events gone by come out of mental storage not as stock images (e.g. the picturesque beach) but as pared-down instances. The uncle making coffee peers over his window through the same timeless eyes as the jaguar god.
Which, if we can be permitted one final leap, return us to the organizing principle of the tropical apex. Art historiographically, island nations like the DR, Haiti and Jamaica have lurked as an afterthought behind even the resuscitation of work from the larger locales of the Global South such as Brazil and Nigeria. More attention, no doubt, will flow to creators and cultures from these worlds—the politics of our moment makes it imperative, as does the perpetual search for new makers and their artifacts. But for all of Ramirez’s emphasis on the importance of projecting visibility onto Dominican culture, his work lands back on the idiosyncratic of the personal. The apex is no real place on the map, any more than a “tropic” is. Said differently, the pinnacle isn’t out there on a beach, a map, or a survey textbook. It’s the lyricism of personal myth, or the chromatic brilliance hidden inside the bony hardness of the clam shell. WM
The exhibition continues from September 29th to October 21st.
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.view all articles from this author