Shake, Rattle and Roll at Grounds For Sculpture

Rattle, a gallery installation by artist Paul Henry Ramirez at Grounds For Sculpture through January 8, 2017, rattles the senses with color and sound, inviting viewers in to come and play.

Centered on the shiny concrete floor of the West Gallery are five plastic Day Glo colored benches shaped like giant Life Savers. The echo of a voice repeating words draws a visitor closer to the large works. It’s hard to separate the “music” from the gallery’s ambient noise, but something like an air-raid siren or a whistling tea kettle can be heard. As the sounds turn to rushing water, the eccentric circles of color appear to be moving. There are also dripping sounds and then you look up at the large spirals of color and see they are, indeed, dripping.

Sometimes amid large bold things, it’s the little simple thing that draws the eye. The small white ceramic sculptures in vitrines, whose polymorphous shapes can be what the viewer imagines—a mother dancing with her children, a colony of people taking over a boat, a jester with seven heads, a father and son competing to see who can juggle more balls, a group grope—are gracefully gentle.

Each painting is different, says Ramirez, sitting so upright on those plastic benches your best posture feels like its slumping. In contrast to the world of color in this installation, Ramirez wears all black. His ponytail matches the color of his sunglasses, which he removes to switch into glasses with a black frame and clear lenses. Always in black, Ramirez is a fixture at area gallery openings.

“I mix the colors for vibrancy and I do it intuitively,” says Ramirez, who has rented studio space at Grounds For Sculpture since 2008. “I’m introducing a new palette for this show. If it looks right to my eye, I don’t think about it too much—I’m a born colorist, it comes naturally. If I like it I go with the flow. The large fields require lots of coats applied evenly.”

A group of high school students has come through to tour the space. They hang out inside the Life Saver benches, as if inside a hot tub, and their union begins to resemble the shapes Ramirez has formed from clay.

“All my work is figurative and references the body,” he says.

The El Paso, Texas, native grew up on the border near Juarez, Mexico. Hisgrandmother gave him a big box of Crayola craft projects including a paint-by-number set he loved, but his introduction to art came from the family Bible. “I made forts and mud cakes in the desert with my brother and sisters but the Bible had beautiful paintings. I would study them and thought to myself, I want to do this, and I never gave up.”

His teachers praised his drawing “and their support fueled me to continue being creative.” Before leaving El Paso, he had a solo exhibit in Juarez. He recounts driving his artwork over the border in a Ford pickup truck.

After studying painting, printmaking, drawing and sculpture for a year at the University of Texas at El Paso, Ramirez received a grant to study printmaking in Paris, but instead came to Trenton where a friend was doing an apprenticeship at the Johnson Atelier. From there, Ramirez had a successful career as a window designer for Macy’s in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania, Lord & Taylor in Somerville and Henri Bendel’s and Charivari in New York.

Soon he was exhibiting his fine art in alternative spaces, developing a style he calls “biomorphic abstraction.”

“What I was doing was geometric, having a dialogue with architecture and space, squares and lines,” he says. “Straight lines come together with curved lines to create this language. I was using male and female forms, morphing into one universal form. All of the figures are based on abstraction, but are minimal—they are about touch and movement, space and volume.”

He came back to New Jersey in 2008. What he loves about having his studio at the Grounds, besides the beautiful environment, is being in a community of artists who share ideas.

Since 2002, Ramirez has been collaborating with sound designer So Takahashi, who worked with Ramirez on the sound element for Rattle—it runs for 57 minutes and comes through five different speakers, moving from one to the other so it sounds like it is moving. The viewer is compelled to walk through to get the full effect.

Takahashi lives in Norway, so the collaboration takes place over Skype. It began with Ramirez seeking out sounds he liked, then sharing them with Takahashi. “I was interested in playful explosions, children laughing,” says Ramirez, who recorded himself saying words like “squirts” and “splatters” and “shake it up”—which was meshed together with the sound. There are 10 tracks separated by quiet space. “The beauty is that the viewer can experience it a different way every time they come because of all the layers,” says Ramirez. Even the fired clay pieces take on a different cast, depending on the angle of the sun coming in through the colored glass.

Ramirez doesn’t necessarily wake up and say to himself, OK, today I’m going to work on my ideas in clay. “I don’t think about it, I just do it. If I have clay I can’t wait to get my hands in and work—I treat it like drawing. I feel an immediate and deep connection to line. I think of it as dance to music. Each work leads to the next. You keep building on the idea, making it new and fresh.”

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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