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Noah Becker in Conversation with Painter José Luis Ramírez

Mexican painter José Luis Ramírez at work.

By NOAH BECKER December, 2019

The great Mexican painter José Luis Ramírez creates large-scale colorful figurative paintings. His works are wrought with narrative interactions and dream-like situations. He has also mastered certain stylistic aspects of the old painters from history. I see overtones of Rembrant, Bruegel and Bosch brought together in surprising ways in a Ramirez painting. But aside from my art history lesson here, Ramirez has created a style that is contemporary and liberated from these historical influences. His works are rich, poetic and dramatic visual experiences for viewers. A Ramirez painting is experiential but also political and spiritual in nature. Ramirez's creative process is literal and intuitive in this sense, yet filled with painterly humor and emotional confrontation. What I enjoy most about his work is the scale of it, its bold colors and its deeply considered handling of paint and imagery within a narrative context. Painting in this way is a difficult task but Ramirez handles it better than many current artists I've encountered. I was excited to have the following in-depth discussion with  José Luis Ramirez about his masterful work.

Noah Becker: Where were you born? 

José Luis Ramírez: The city of Durango, Mexico.

Becker: Where did you study art?

Ramirez: At the University Juarez, in the school of painting, sculpture and handcrafts in the state of Durango.

Becker: In your painting “Sonrisas de hace muchos años”, you have painted children in trees and other figures that seem to be apparitions from other eras or even collages of memory?

Ramirez: They’re characters that I paint with the intention that they get together in an atypical aesthetic environment, usually each of the children or people that appear in my work are taken from stories where each person has an important role that at the end, this marks the path of the piece. All or most of them are people that I find on the streets of my city and the only thing I do is paint them and give them a part within the story.

Sonrisas de hace muchos años, oil on canvas, 177 x 249 cm, 2019,  Smiles from many years ago

Becker: How do you start planning a painting like this? Or is it a completely intuitive process? 

Ramirez: It is intuitive, I never plan a piece, I even consider my work as some sort of emotional-personal balance. Although I do make sure that each of the pieces have continuation, this way most of my work is linked one to another, through a text or a character that is the protagonist of it. Finally, in each and every one of my pieces, my temper is ahead of me. And the surprise factor, I love to trick the spectator into believing it’s some sort of collage when in reality there´s an intense amount of work in each of these elements.

Tuitán, oil on canvas, 100 x 130 cm, 2019 

Becker: “Tuitán” shows a single figure in a tree. It’s as though the figure is split in half but the figure’s expression shows a vibrancy that suggests another reality. Tell me a bit about the idea behind this piece? 

Ramirez: This piece is the result of a visit I did to a nearby town to where I live, the character is a 97 year old man, in his story he told me how the town where he lived more than 70 years ago was, the piece “tuitan” is a tribute to all the elders from this town called Tuitan. Very often I paint older people, I think aesthetically, these faces have a lot to give, and they provide a wide range of meaning. Sometimes I paint elders I don’t know, but I always try to relate the stories to whatever series I’m working on in that moment, in this case, I’ve been working for over 2 years on a project that revolves around imaginary characters and spaces from two great books, Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames by the amazing Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.

Becker: “Retrato de familia de clase alta” has the Hieronymus Bosch aspect of a landscape seen for far off. The figures in your painting are a group and in the air. I’m especially interested in the half-human half-animal figures such as the dog man on the right side? Is your narrative specific of intuitive in this kind of piece? There’s obviously a political narrative because of the flag.

Ramirez: In this piece, the scenario is, as in many others, beautifully designed, it’s a pretty landscape, but the characters in it make it unsettling, it talks about an upper class that disrupts the lowest feelings of a distressed society, and that is being handled in a cynical way with a lot of caution. Here you can see people mutating with animals, and characters that are upset by their reality or their role in the painting, they all live here, covered by the flag that at the end, belongs to all of them.

Retrato de familia de clase alta, oil on canvas,  220 x 180 cm 2019, (High class family portrait)

Becker: “La reunión” (not pictured), shows a crowd scene in an atmosphere reminiscent of Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch.” In my own work I’ve studied Bruegel and also enjoy the complexity of crowd scenes that retain a certain narrative or theme. Is there a specific story behind this painting?

Ramirez: It’s a scene with characters that make no sense and that question why they’re there, many of them are put there without an specific spot, gathering trying to be seen, it’s a battle of egos, they all dispute the pose and the one that moves won’t be in the picture.

Becker: “Contenedor de sueños y recuerdos” has a central figure with a pan or bowl and a woman in a 17th Century style ball gown lounging in the  background. You use contemporary objects like a plastic bucket that the figure on the right is standing in. Is this a kind of hallucination of the present and past or how does this idea of old and new manifest in your work?

Contenedor de sueños y recuerdos,  oil on linen, 150 x 150 cm, 2019 (Container of dreams and memories)

Ramirez: This piece is a personal work, it talks about a sentimental relationship, these people were close to me, the objects I painted also belong to them, I only transported them to the canvas and luckily they got along well, achieving a composition made by something personal and aesthetic, and making it possible to organize the mess I had at the moment.

Becker: What is coming up for you in terms of future exhibitions?

Ramirez: I’m currently working on an exhibit that consists of 44 pieces, all of them are in a large format, they revolve around the books mentioned before, I’m taking up key words and scenarios from an imaginary where characters and objects appear and disappear. This exhibit will be shown in Germany and it’s the most immediate work I have, I’m also preparing pieces for Tokyo’s art fair next June. WM

 

Noah Becker

Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube. 

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