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Christina Ramberg, 'Tight Hipped', 1974. Copyright the Estate of Christina Ramberg, Courtesy Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism.

The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg In Dialogue is a project currently on pause. Initially staged by Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art–and promoted as Ramberg’s first major presentation outside the US–it was scheduled to travel to Gateshead’s Baltic Centre this May. Like a lot of things it’s hanging in limbo, so I haven’t actually seen it. I’ve followed the show show since it was announced, watched the press images come through; wondered why there seemed to be so little of Ramberg in the Berlin install-shots, but determined to remain optimistic. I bought the catalogue during lockdown–also strangely Ramberg-lite. Now, given some extra time for consideration before Husbands reaches UK audiences, I find myself writing a cautionary preview rather than the review I imagined I’d be working on this time last year.

Curated by Anna Gritz, The Making of Husbands headlines Ramberg’s paintings and drawings of elaborate hair and underwear in a kind of diagrammatic bondage. A selection of these are presented alongside works by 14 living artists–from near contemporaries like Senga Nengudi to younger artists like Sara Deraedt and Hans-Christain Lotz–each in some way dealing more or less directly with the ‘socialized’ body and/or its artificial environment. As an attempt to situate a relatively under-acknowledged artist within a wider field, Husbands is well intentioned. The accompanying catalogue–edited by Gritz–provides a great insight into Ramberg’s visual archive of collected ephemera, scrapbooks and slides. But, from the head-scratching reference to John Cassavetes in the title onwards (The Making of ‘Husbands’ was a BBC documentary on the production of Cassavetes’ 1970 film), things start to unravel. As a group show it’s coherent enough, but it’s a group show doing double duty as a mini-retrospective. Pulled in too many directions, and losing sight of its headliner, Husbands sadly looks like a wasted opportunity.

Ramberg (1946-1995), an artist associated with the ‘Chicago Imagists’ of the 60’s-70’s, is long overdue a definitive retrospective on her own terms. Her metamorphic paintings, mostly in acrylic on masonite or fibreboard, explore the complex push and pull of feminising/formalising devices–plaits, coils, braids, wired-underwear, garters, stockings, binds. They re-appropriate, with alternating fascination and revulsion, the kinds of bodily re-composition which such devices are used to achieve, investigating critically, forensically, the potential for exploitation and transformation inherent within such an apparently simple, constrictive thing as ‘shape’.

A hair-do can become a chocolate liqueur, can become a rope, can become a hair-do again, in Ramberg’s fluid taxonomy of form. The multi-functional jagged ‘highlight’ used by comics artists to indicate flowing hair, wood-grain, sheen, contour, tightness and so on is used practically as an organising principle. Fluidity is constantly measured against rigidity, the transfigured or transformed against the standardised or essentialised. There’s a constant interplay of elegance and stricture in her exploratory studies of corsets, blouses and bras, in which she finds an equivalence between the artificial ‘shaping’ of feminine bodies and the act of shaping and abstracting through drawing and painting–a process she referred to, with typically incisive ambivalence as ‘containing, restraining, reforming, hurting, compressing, binding, transforming…into a clean smooth line’ [1].

Worryingly, it’s a process of suppression and restraint very similar to that at work in The Making of Husbands. Ramberg’s expansiveness looks like it’s been straightjacketed into a restrictive curatorial framework: a group show more interested in the ‘strictures’ which condition the body’s experience in the environment/society/museum than in the experience of the feminine body itself. Works such as Gislaine Leung’s Shrooms (2016 ) for example–mushroom shaped night-lights plugged into the gallery space’s sockets–are designed to ‘soften’ and critique the institutional surroundings; ‘soft’ being reductive code for ‘feminine’. They’re part of a wider curatorial gesture which brushes over Ramberg’s complex feminism as much as it disregards her unique qualities as a painter. Somehow, ideas around gender and painting are things Husbands doesn’t seem to want to dig into too deeply, obscuring a crucial dynamic which runs all the way through her oeuvre: the tension between composition and re-composition as things inherent to painting specifically, and as implicitly feminist (or, at the very least, gender-ambivalent) pictorial tools more broadly.

Painterly ‘re-composition’ is explored in diverse and idiosyncratic ways across the work of so many female painters working from the mid-60’s to the present. Artists who found in painting an art form that specifically deals with questions of experience and perspective, visual-thematic hierarchy, and which both admits and rejects visual essentialism. Artists who might not deal directly with the body, but whose works implicitly explore ambiguously feminine/gendered themes and perspectives within an historically ‘male’ discipline. Tomma Abts, for example, whose compositional play with soft and sharp forms and unfolding or defensively interlocking, armouring, un-gendering shapes often mirror Ramberg’s; like pretty paper and ribbons almost weaponized, made baffling. Or you could point to it in the way Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s trompe-l’oeil pictures of floor tiles or of masking-taped watercolours are about what falls within the ‘frame’, what’s worth our attention, and what kind of attention; or equally the flattened or skewed visual hierarchies in the work of painters as diverse as Lucy McKenzie or Carol Rhodes (who curated a condensed presentation of Ramberg’s work for Glasgow International 2014). Or again, more obviously, in the fluid, gender-fluid, bio-morphology of Lee Lozano, or in Karen Kilimnick’s interrogation of ‘minor’ historical genres and of painterly ‘fanciness’ and display. Any of these artists might’ve been constructively rather than constrictively placed in dialogue with Ramberg: their singular adaptations of abstraction, landscape, interior or still life, even decorative and cross-media painting, say, brought into conversation with her treatment of the fetishized body-figure-portrait.

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Installation view 'The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue' at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2019. Photo: Frank Sperling

Husbands isn’t so much a ‘dialogue’ as a dozen competing voices, which combine to stifle Ramberg’s own. The paintings exhibited are mostly of a similar scale and type, over-emphasizing her torso-size/torso-format pictures and making them more of a ‘series’ than a selection of individual works, their particular qualities standardised and regularised, sacrificed to the overall mise-en-scène.

Ramberg’s pictorial and thematic range has been nipped and pinched by the need to be demonstrably multi-vocal; her own practice appearing more limited and narrow in the attempt to connect it with so many others, as much as the sheer practicalities of having to accommodate works by 14 other artists. You might wonder, why use Ramberg’s name at all? Or, at least, whether such a show really should’ve waited till later in her ‘rediscovery’. But there are deeper issues of curatorial presumption and elision here. There’s a flawed overgeneralisation about ‘institutional’ strictures and structures and of what these might be–behavioural, architectural, technological etc. It’s a particularly damaging generalisation when the specific structures and strictures Ramberg deals with are so much about the experience, transformation or denial of the feminine body, and how the feminine body relates to those objects closest to it: either literally, in the form of underwear, or figuratively, via objects like lamps, vases or urns, which have a culturally feminised ‘shape’ and which carry associated metaphors of touch, containment and display. Complexities of ‘femininity’ and ‘womanhood’ essential to Ramberg’s work, not to mention specific experiences of bodily anxiety and empowerment, comfort and discomfort rare in painting, are mostly skimmed over– limiting our understanding of why that work might’ve been unique in its time or relevant now.

Admittedly I’m writing from a distance here. But there’s an unavoidable feeling, even from what’s available in print and online, of precious time and space being squandered in what is basically Ramberg’s first major international presentation. A third of the slim ‘monograph’–still the most substantial publication on the artist in recent years–is given over to practices that have only a peripheral relation to Ramberg’s major concerns. Parallels are successfully drawn with Senga Nengudi’s use of nylon tights in interrogating the ‘elasticity’ of femininity as a concept; successful partly because it’s a rare instance of Husbands acknowledging the power in embracing, stretching or exploiting strictures, rather than straightforwardly critiquing them. But the text mostly strains towards superficial connections. Gaylen Gerber’s Backdrops–paper surfaces which mimic exhibition space walls in colour and texture–are said to explore difference, separateness and display, for example [2], while the notion of societal ‘stricture’ is stretched to refer to subjects as thematically distant as religious upbringing in the work of Terre Thaemlitz: which could have landed with more significance had Ramberg’s paintings of hands (toying with cloth or binds and carrying notions of flagellation and fetish, gesture and blessing), say, been included. Similarly, the limited selection excludes her later, more gestural abstract works which don’t fit with the programme– which , perhaps, would’ve defined her too clearly as a painter-drawer first and foremost. Within that elision are Husbands’ two major flaws: a lack of faith in the monograph/solo show, endemic of an equal mistrust of anything that doesn’t appear easily inter-disciplinary or explicitly multi-vocal enough (i.e. which doesn’t have enough curatorial kudos), even if that means a reductive misrepresentation of the artist, or of why that artist might be important.

Ramberg is complex enough on her own terms. But it’s within the terms and conditions of painting, the ‘confines’ she chose, that those complexities fully unfold. Her distinct interlacing of abstract and erotic art along with the vernacular, her particular formal-thematic stress and strain; her controlled, almost ‘cosmetic’ palette, her exploration of symmetry and asymmetry, her equation between bodily and pictorial tension, her forgoing of texture and touch (while all the time insinuating it); all of which are unique in inventiveness, character and rigour, and in relation to the pop/photorealist/postmodern contexts of the the late 60’s-90’s. These complexities matter. Curators have a duty of care at the best of times, but particularly when dealing with an artist’s ‘legacy’ and even more so when dealing with the reconsideration of neglected female and non-cis-male artists within wider, often rigid narratives of painting.

Of course, any ‘curation’ carries dangers of restriction and distortion (as does criticism). But that’s not to say suitable frames can’t be chosen. In 2008, curator Helen Molesworth’s Solitaire (Wexler Centre for the Arts) brought together the work of Mangold and Lozano along with that of Joan Semmel, in what she termed a ‘group-monograph’: giving a nuanced account of the three artists as emphatically individual practitioners, each with an ambivalent–but important–relationship to the prevailing feminist and/or aesthetic theory of their time. And that was over a decade ago. In her introduction, Molesworth suggested that ‘the centuries long legacy of painting and the relatively nascent forces of feminism are intertwined in ways that have yet to be fully understood’ [3]. Dates for the Baltic iteration of The Making of Husbands are still to be confirmed, but I wonder whether we’ll be any closer to unpicking that particular weave when it finally opens its doors.

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‘The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue’ was at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, from the 14th September 2019 – 5th January 2020, and at 49 nord 6 est - Frac Lorraine, Metz from February–May 2020. It is scheduled to travel to The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (dates TBC). It includes works by Alexandra Bircken, Rachal Bradley, Sara Deraedt, Gaylen Gerber, Konrad Klapheck, Ghislaine Leung, Hans-Christian Lotz, Senga Nengudi, Ana Pellicer, Christina Ramberg, Richard Rezac, Diane Simpson, Terre Thaemlitz, Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, and Kathleen White.

[1] Ramberg, press release
[2] Gritz, Anna (ed.) The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg In Dialogue, KW and Koenig Books, London 2019, p.113
[3] Molesworth, Helen (ed.) Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel, Wexner Centre fort he Arts, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2008, p.15

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Jamie Limond is an artist and writer based in Glasgow.