by Alejandra Russi
Hacía tantos años que no alzaba la cara, que me olvidé del cielo. Y aunque lo hubiera hecho, ¿qué habría ganado? El cielo está tan alto, y mis ojos sin tan mirada, que vivía contenta con saber dónde quedaba la tierra.
After so many years of not lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded, that I was happy just knowing where the ground was.
—Juan Rulfo, “Pedro Páramo”
Today, the United States Postal Service will begin issuing five forever stamps featuring leitmotifs from Mexican artist Martín Ramírez’s (1895–1963) ever-captivating drawings. If postage stamps—in their particular conjunction of the iconic and the ephemeral—reflect the progress of social history, this set is an eloquent, and urgent, acknowledgement of both the ongoing saga of Latino immigration in this country and the fields of Self-Taught and so-called Outsider visual art.
Ramírez was a faithful Catholic and a practiced horseback rider who, at age 30, left his native Jalisco to look for work opportunities in California—as we know from his biography, unearthed post-mortem by sociologists Víctor M. and Kristin E. Espinosa. It was 1925, and Mexico was then immersed in the complex aftermath of the Revolution; still the battlefield where religious mutineers known as the “Cristeros,” (those fighting in the name of Christ) were waging a Holy War of sorts against the formal régime’s newly instated anti-clerical Constitution.
Like someone who walks into a maze and never finds his way out, when Ramírez left his country, he entered a lifelong and multifaceted exile. He worked in the mines and the railroads in Northern California during the ominous years preceding the Great Depression. He drew on the margins of his letters to Mexico. He was institutionalized under the presumption of manic-depression, and later catatonic dementia praecox and schizophrenia. Thereafter, he expressed himself through art and chose to never speak again.
Ramírez’s artistic vision seamlessly merges American vignettes—portrayals of an alienating urban landscape—with Mexican iconography elegantly extrapolated from memory. His assemblages and graphic mise-en-scènes: his Madonnas and mounted caballeros, his animals and trains—often framed within visually reverberating structures of shaded lineal iterations—are missives from a new and mysterious alternate world, where things are inextricably familiar and eerie. Art, in this case, seems to flourish from a profound sense of isolation, at the decisive point where representation fails to become life and must thus become something in its own right.
That Ramírez is among the great self-taught masters of the past century is, or should be, an indisputable statement. Equally true, is that the gargantuan artistic will expressed in the opus is the evidence of a tragic personal wreckage—of physical confinement, mental and cultural segregation. To a certain extent, it is unavoidable to incorporate the artist’s pathos into a reading of the artwork; these 400 plus drawings are, after all, Ramírez’s self-crafted redemption. All great art—whether labeled Outsider or otherwise—should, however, pay homage to the particularity of the creator’s circumstance and at the same time transcend it.
The discussion around the dichotomy of mainstream art vis-à-vis what falls “outside” and its questionable legitimacy is by now well worn. While a set of <em>forever</em> postage stamps dedicated to an artist like Ramírez is certainly one more instance in which the separation can be deemed obsolete (is there, after all, anything more mainstream than a stamp?), what is truly remarkable about this commemorative gesture is something broader. Ramírez was a creative giant, yes, but he was also a Mexican outcast in the United States who lived in the uttermost fringe of society. By choosing to honor his life and work; by including him in the league of personages worthy of such officially endorsed recognition, one of the oldest American institutions is demonstrating that the artificial inside/outside paradigm speaks of how we think about national and cultural frontiers—well beyond the realm of art.
In Ramírez’s work, there is a compulsion to grasp and encapsulate empty space, a deep concern with physical and mental boundaries. If we indulge in a little imaginative thinking, we could ponder on how this suggests that borders and dividing lines, of any kind, are arbitrary and contingent—the first cartographers must have been great draftsmen, like Ramírez himself—and what this might imply. In any case, what the Ramírez example (and the radical shift of his standing in American society) brings to the forefront, is that culture and creativity are fluid, non-compartmentalized things; that exceptional art is born from intimate needs and specific historical contexts, but that it resonates with the human condition at large. If life becomes art to make up for its shortcomings, it is only in the best of cases that, once transformed, it gets to become life again. Today, in the form of a compact and historic set of stamps, parts of Ramírez’s art will enter into the flux of life and travel freely into the collective imagination.
Alejandra Russi is a freelance arts and culture journalist. Follow: @RussiAleja