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Autumn Ramsey’s off-kilter compositions reward patience. The paintings currently on view at Park View / Paul Soto demonstrate a range of skill, technique, and imagery. Often, a more complete-looking foreground is superimposed, almost cut-and-pasted, onto a blurred or smeared background; sometimes, it’s the other way around. Usually, there is tension between foreground and background, with Ramsey’s subject matter—flora, fauna, and female figures—struggling to come together in between these worlds. Ramsey treats painting as a precarious medium and practice, and her exhibition arrives at a moment when society feels more on the brink of collapse than it has in the 35 years that I’ve been alive.
In this way, her paintings feel timely: their precarity mimicking the generally anxiety-inducing state of things and their measured quirkiness offering a brief pause, approximating a sort of solace. The Pool (2020) quotes and tempers the typically taut nature scenes that first brought Henri Rousseau ridicule and later reverence. In it, Ramsey employs some fast and loose brushwork, as well as the kind of exaggerated mannerisms and floral flair one might find in certain traditional, illustrative East Asian artworks. Lilly Pad (2016) maintains this wondrous and worldly vibe to a degree, with a flattened green lily pad flippantly weighing down a fish that floats above muddy waters. A kind of dumb optical illusion happens here—from afar, the water lily looks like it could be a slick digital addition to the otherwise painterly canvas, but up close, the plant is much more straightforwardly and shoddily rendered. In Trial (2020), another fish navigates a darker dream—the water and leaves fade in and out of focus, their hazy hues reminiscent of the pictures featured in the Flemish wing of your nearest big-city museum. Ramsey pulls from the East and the West, from “high art” and “lowbrow,” treating her references equally while still giving space to their differences.
There is, however, a major distinction between the way Ramsey portrays humans and the rest of the natural world. Whether casual self-deprecation or something deeper, each figurative work in the show—all of them women—is handled, at first glance, with considerably less care than other life forms. These figures include the washed-out, stylish sketch of a pale, elegant lady preparing for bed (Sleepy, 2020); a canceled-out, milky-white, reclining nude masked by an unfinished bouquet (White Flowers, 2019); and a gnarly outline of a blonde in the buff with a dead stare, hard nipples, and a mangled left hand, laid atop what looks like a painter’s palette doused in mineral spirits (Lilly Pad Too, c. 2010). These depictions do not lack compassion, though; rather, Ramsey’s volitional negligence simply seems to offer up a more realistic perspective on our collective vanity and ignorance.
As I looked at Ramsey’s paintings, I kept thinking about speed: how quickly art is made; how quickly it is viewed, absorbed, and processed; how quickly Covid-19 started to spread; how quickly some people took the virus seriously, and how quickly others dismissed it. It is striking, really, the speed with which, in less than a year, our daily routines have changed. The pandemic has decimated things like art fairs, which have come to dominate this industry almost as quickly; it has also made the industry reconsider how it might deal with things like social media and social justice moving forward, with—let’s be honest—mixed results thus far.
Ramsey manipulates the pace of understanding, providing only enough information to get us to the next idea, thus demanding that we parse each detail. This year has forced us all to slow down and shuffle things around, to reprioritize for the now and the later. But as evidenced in both Ramsey’s recent and earlier works alike, she has long been invested in taking the time to appreciate life in whatever unexpected, myriad forms it presents itself. We could all stand to learn from 2020, to continue to slow things down; perhaps then, we could also learn to actively value some simpler comforts and pleasures, instead of passively counting down the days until things hopefully, miraculously improve.
Autumn Ramsey runs from October 27, 2020–January 9, 2021, at Park View / Paul Soto (2271 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90018).