The Outsider Art Fair is coming to New York on January 29, bringing 50 international galleries of folk, self-taught, and outsider art to Center 548 for four glorious days. The fair offers the rare opportunity for artists operating far outside the regulations of the art world — whether marginalized, isolated, incarcerated, institutionalized or psychologically compromised — a space to show the vibrant and singular artworks that don’t just reflect their worlds, but constitute them. In anticipation of one of our favorite art events of the year, we’re spotlighting a different outsider artist every day.
Aurie Ramirez crafts pastel worlds populated by androgynous glam rockers, pinstriped clowns, and Victorian vaudevillians. The Filipino artist, now based in Oakland, California, combines the daintiness of watercolor with the rough edges of hard rock, rendering a topsy turvy visual realm somewhere between a circus tent and a lady’s boudoir.
Ramirez creates work at Oakland’s Creative Growth center, a studio and gallery space for artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. The artist, born in 1962, was diagnosed with autism, and never became proficient in language, although she can understand English. “Some people describe it as if you’re typing on your keyboard and just moved your fingers over a little bit to the right and started typing from there,” Jennifer Strate O’Neal of Creative Growth explained. “You’re going through the same motions but words are not being produced from it.” She does, however, speak in a language of her own devising, and writes in it as well.
Many outsider artists, including Susan King and James Castle, communicate with means outside of language. It’s this urgency of creation for the purpose of communication that often categorizes outsider artists’ work, which is known to be compulsive, unvarnished and wildly eccentric.
Ramirez’s images, dripping with melodrama and watery, rainbow brightness, resemble advertisements for an NSFW performance accessible only through your dreams. As Roberta Smith described in The New York Times: “These figures cluster in groups, like a theater troupe posing for a group portrait; they inhabit Victorian settings or plainer ones that suggest contemporary California. There are signs of violence and surgical scars; frequent indications of romance, sex and family dysfunction; odalisques reclining before paintings of odalisques.”
One of the ways Ramirez connects with the world around her is through pop culture — another common characteristic of self-taught artists. Her main two obsessions are the rock band Kiss, which she saw preform live at the age of 18, and The Addams Family. Combine Gene Simmons and Wednesday Addams and you’ll get a figure resembling the close cousin of Ramirez’s psychedelic jokers. Fashion also plays a large role, with subjects donning neon tuxedos, royal robes and the occasional crotchless garter belt.
Another prominent feature of Ramirez’s work is junk food — everything from ice cream cones to pizza slices. According to O’Neal, Ramirez focuses on rendering foods in her art that she can’t eat in reality. Slices of veggie pizza fall daintily, forming a ring around an exposed vagina and garter belt, creating an image that appeals to base teenage fantasy as well as something far stranger. Her artwork functions as an alternate universe where the unattainable can be grasped and savored again and again.
Ramirez’s watercolors epitomize desire, glamour, sexuality and indulgence in colorful forms untethered to the mainstream images that often channel such sensations through commodified goods. Her imagination conjures relevant yet visionary tales of androgynous queens and stylish rocker dolls, putting on a show of elegance, edge, allure and eroticism on some stage up in the clouds. Even the non-queens among us can’t help but get wrapped up in the luxurious whimsy of it all.
See Ramirez’s work at the Creative Growth gallery at the Outsider Art Fair, from January 29 until February 1 at Center 548 in New York.
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