Those who wonder whether painting has a future — whether this exasperatingly obdurate and sticky old medium can still speak to us in an age of frictionless digital everything — miss the point. Skepticism about the medium is valid, as far as it goes; but you’re a fool if you underestimate the people who use it.
The Institute of Contemporary Art is pushing this point with two splendid solo exhibits by female painters whose work feels urgently alive. One of them, Amy Sillman, is nearing 60, and working at the peak of her powers (her show was reviewed in the Globe in October). The other, Christina Ramberg, died in 1995 just before turning 50.
Unlike Sillman, who works with brightly colored oils, relishing the medium’s textures and singularity — its inimitability — Ramberg worked in smooth acrylics on masonite. The results are dead flat, and seemingly made for reproduction.
Far from wanting to emphasize her own expressive touch, in other words, Ramberg was interested precisely in paint’s ability to imitate. But imitate what?
For most of her career, Ramberg and her artist husband, Philip Hanson, were associated with the Chicago Imagists, a loose-knit group who, against the prevailing trend toward abstraction, believed in the psychological and emotional charge inherent in representational imagery. They were fascinated by codes of representation, especially those spat out by pop culture. (According to ICA curator Jenelle Porter, writing in a small catalog accompanying the show, Ramberg and Hanson once “compiled a comprehensive scrapbook of clippings to diagram recurring motifs in comics.”)
Although she was preoccupied with the human — and particularly the female — form, Ramberg wasn’t interested in getting paint to work as a stand-in for human flesh, in the manner of Willem de Kooning or Francis Bacon.
Rather, she adopted and fastidiously transformed suavely distilled graphic idioms from comics, as well as from fashion illustration, and from line- and pattern-loving outsider artists like Joseph Yoakum (1889-1972) and August Natterer (1868-1933). Bringing her own perversity-loving intelligence to bear on these various artificial idioms, she came up with images that suggest a riveting psycho-sexual drama, one that grows more complex and less amenable to interpretation with each succeeding work.
The show’s 13 paintings were made in the decade between 1971 and 1981. They suggest a clear progression from an erotic, if somewhat appalled, attention to the shaping of the female form (via structuring undergarments and patterned fabrics) toward a more dynamic and disturbed vision that transforms clothes and hair into armor and skin and scrambles gender. Shapes mutate, patterns go haywire.
The first three paintings are small. They make up a kind of triptych. Each part depicts a female hand, with a white handkerchief twisted around its fingers in tensely suggestive configurations. The hands may be female but they are not really human: they are boneless and bulbous, with elongated fingers that hold their positions in space like frozen semaphores. The handkerchief, too, is a composite of simplified graphic signs that suggest bunching, twisting, and stretching.
The four following paintings, made between 1971 and 1974, all show a woman’s torso in profile. It is cropped at the neck and thighs, and in each case trussed up in undergarments that suggest painful constraint, erotic luxury, and a whiff of sexual fetishism.
But the fourth, “Istrian River Lady,” veers off into uncharted territory. Suddenly, undergarments take on altered shapes that bear only a slender relationship to the body. Ancillary shapes, rendered in a style suggesting light reflecting off bunched and glossy hair, erupt unexpectedly from seams and apertures, like graphic hernias.
And by the next work, “Wired,” we are dealing with a whole new phenomenon: a symmetrical, frontal arrangement of torso, legs, and arms that is pure graphic invention, and actually no longer recognizable as a female body. A pattern that denotes stretchy, see-through fabric suddenly breaks free into randomly looping lines, like a worker bee gone AWOL, before resuming its orderly, interlaced ways an inch or two further along. Glossy hair patterns appear in places that, by their shape and position, suggest that they must be male genitalia, the crown of a head, or a brassiere.
In “Schizophrenic Discovery,” one whole side of what appears as a male body has splintered apart. And in “Double Hesitation,” the elaborate patterning is no longer superimposed on a pre-existing body: It has become the body.
Ramberg’s works from the late 1970s and early 1980s can begin to feel over-elaborated, as if an increasingly anarchic, and even demented sensibility were being sternly disciplined, or made to fit a preconceived, airtight format. In a way, that was surely deliberate. But in other ways, you feel a regrettable foreclosure. The sameness of the theme seems to prevail over the delirious unpurling of its variations.
That said, the 13 paintings here make it clear that Ramberg deserves to be better known. Far from arriving in our midst as a tidily packaged historical curiosity, she seems fresh, fearless, and contemporary.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.