Thursday, February 19, 2015

Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik: Letting (e)Go

by Carl Belz

(Author's note: Facebook friends Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik have teamed up for an exhibition titled "Generative Processes," for which they invited me to contribute the following essay. The exhibition will be at TSA Gallery in Bushwick--1329 Willoughby Ave, #2A--from February 20 to March 29, 2015 with an opening on February 20th from 6 to 9 pm.)

In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself. 

In referring to their pairing for this exhibition, Debra Ramsay mentioned her and Alex Paik’s mutual interest in creating an “ego-less” art. An ego-less art: a surprising yet intriguing ambition, even a radical ambition at a time when individual empowerment and expression are everywhere promoted in our culture – in the countless blogs and commentary flooding the internet, in the unprecedented financial rewards associated with entrepreneurial achievement, in the plethora of memoirs on our bookshelves, and not least in our art world’s boundless appetite for star-studded spectacle and entertainment. Against such excess Debra Ramsay sounds an alternative note in describing herself as a meditative agency, “a conduit for the arrangement of shape and the placement of color” in her abstract pictures, while Alex Paik in the same spirit modestly likens himself to a country songwriter needing “only three chords and the truth” to write a good country song. 
Debra Ramsay, Color Changes in the forest, during one year, at the same location, 2015, acrylic on Juan silk, 6 inches x 153  inches.
What ego-less can be said to mean in the face of these artists’ art is signaled in the arts’ unassuming physical properties. Debra Ramsay regularly works with acrylic on unframed museum board, paper, mylar and related materials that connote cultural ephemera but at the same time facilitate the kind of close handling and interaction we associate not with signature artworks destined for exhibition but with private studies and drawings and with problem solving explorations meant not first of all to delight but to aid in resolving the job at hand – that is, with artistic process not product, let alone with branded commodities. Nor is the work driven in terms of size and scale; on the contrary, we’ve no trouble imagining an ample Debra Ramsay exhibition being fully delivered in a briefcase or artist’s portfolio. And here, too, the artists are in accord, for Alex Paik also works with paper, cutting and folding and creasing and coating it with gouache and colored pencil and thereby shaping abstract painting/sculpture hybrids he accurately describes as possessing a toy-sized scale, his method embodying “a lo-fi and straightforward approach to art making, hoping to reveal some truth about my materials or process and create work that is sincere, graceful, and intimate.” Ego-less such art may be said to be, but that’s in no way to say it isn’t personal.
Alex Paik, Folded Square (Hanging Yellow), 2014, gouache, colored pencil, paper, 40 x 13 x 3 ½  inches.
Both of these artists employ a conceptual system of one kind or another to generate and guide their work and – especially significant in the context of their urge toward an ego-less art – to rein in and structure the decisions affecting the work’s spectrum of thought and feeling, which in turn determine its character. In doing so they manifest the conviction that meaningful artistic freedom is secured only within limitations – as in life, so in art – and without them would be, and would be perceived, as merely personal and arbitrary. The artists’ aim in approaching systematically the creative process is not to annihilate the authorial ego, but to acknowledge its humanity.   

Debra Ramsay, Seeing Through :: Landscape As Time, 2014, acrylic on Juan silk, 90 x 48 inches.
Debra Ramsay’s approach is fully present to us in Landscape as Time, an ambitious and visually absorbing project begun in the spring of 2013 while she was participating in a Golden Family Foundation residency in the town of New Berlin in upstate New York. It entailed routinely walking a selected trail on the site, photographing the landscape 18 times at intervals of 100 paces on at least four occasions through the seasons of a calendar year, and returning to the studio after each visit to translate and mix colors from the photographs into the pigments she wanted via a computer application. The paintings that followed focus upon and document seasonal color changes and lengthening or shortening daylight. They are wholly abstract – the artist herself regards them as “pure landscapes reduced to actual found colors” – and they are formally configured into clusters of vertical stripes or stacks of horizontal bands, but they are at the same time regularly ordered, less noticeably but no less importantly, by top-to-bottom and left-to-right compositional symmetry, which in each case is where the artist’s taste – which is central to the artist’s ego – becomes curbed and the systematic framing of the pictures’ genesis is registered. And thus do stasis and change come to resonate and inform one another throughout the series, allowing us better to know each by measuring each against the other, their interaction allowing us to gauge the color changing and thereby glimpse time passing and time paused, feel the coupling of art and nature – and quietly savor the abundantly satisfying pleasures of both. 
Alex Paik, Parallelogram (Offset Layers), gouache, colored pencil, paper, 2014, 21 x 26 ½ x 1 inches.
Alex Paik’s pictorial abstractions are deeply indebted to the classical music abstractions he learned while growing up and playing the violin. Individual works generally begin with a single geometric figure – some version of a triangle, parallelogram, or trapezoid, and so on – that is treated like a musical theme or fragment and in turn becomes the engine generating and guiding the work’s shape, character, and identity. “The work reflects my love of contrapuntal music, imitating the way the theme of a fugue is repeated, turned upside-down, transposed, and folded upon itself. My working process is essentially doing a lot of improvisational sessions and then cutting, pasting, and editing those sessions into some sort of coherent whole, much like Miles Davis’s Bitch’s Brew was composed.” Thus does jazz spontaneity become wed to classical discipline in informing and shaping the work’s structurally complex but intuitively buoyant effect; thus, in becoming visible, do the fugue-like manipulations of its making add music’s defining dimension of time to the work’s content; and thus does the artist’s creative process come to be felt less as an expression of the artist’s ego than as an engagement with the job at hand yielding truth about his approach to art making.  
Alex Paik, Radial (Open), 2014 , gouache, colored pencil, paper, 21 x 21 x 2 ½ inches.
Debra Ramsay, The Days Grow Longer in the Spring, 2014, acrylic on Dura-Lar, 20 x 61 inches..
The history of modernist abstraction hovers around these artists, as they surely know. Debra Ramsay’s vertical clusters and horizontal stacks recall color field paintings from the 1960s by Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland, while Alex Paik’s banded geometries have been likened to Frank Stella’s shaped and striped paintings from that same decade. The comparisons are suggestive, not in revealing meaningful stylistic influences or wry tongue-in-cheek appropriations, but in demonstrating how what goes around comes around – in this case, artists thinking about art making, then and now. For what Davis and Noland and Stella were thinking about then was that gestural abstraction had become excessive and mannered, that composing had too often become arbitrary and merely personal, and that the deck had to be cleared in favor of a simpler, more straightforward and objective approach to art making, an approach that would be less about the artist per se and more about what the artist knows, more like the artist as a conduit. All of which Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik and their generational colleagues very well know, for they know the history of abstract art, yet they harbor no nostalgia for a return to it, preferring instead to be present in the artistic world of their own making, a world respectful of the past but not confined by it; a world in which they assume responsibility for its freedoms and its limits; a world, according to Debra Ramsay, wherein “artistic science” operates and, according to Alex Paik, “formalism is more interested in serendipity and invention than in unified systems of thought” – in other words, the world that’s generously offered in their pictures, the one they call ego-less in which less ego essentially means more creative space for each of us, for you and me and the others.     


Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University

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