Carol Rama: Stuff of dreams and nightmares

"I believe that there is no freedom without derangement.  But then we are all 
pretty deranged." -Carol Rama
Carol Rama
Le tagliole [The Traps], 1966
Hide and enamel on canvas
23 5/8 x 19 3/4 in (60 x 50 cm)
Photo: Tommaso Mattina

From now until September 10th, The New Museum presents Carol Rama: Antibodies, a survey of a life-long body of works by the Italian artist Carol Rama.  It is the first and the most extensive presentation of the artist's work in New York. The exhibition is organized chronologically.  By opening with a self-portrait titled- Autoritratto done in 1937, it alludes toward the idea of an autobiography as this exhibition begins.  To explain each series of works, they are accompanied by a copious number of wall-text.  However, the wall-text is interesting and not meant to be didactic, as each presents a quote by the artist, extracted from various interviews.  Despite the curatorial innovation, this runs the risk of misguiding the viewer because the original questions were not asked in the context of this current exhibition.

During the 1930s until the 1950s, Rama produced many watercolor drawings themed around her life.  Rama's amateur-style of rendering the often times unforeseeable changes that turned her life upside down gives one the sense of watching a tragicomedy. In a series called Appassionata, Rama based some of her characters on the patients she saw in the mental hospital where her mother had stayed. In Appassionata (1940), there is a naked young girl on the bed looking at you.  Her naked body does not convey vulnerability because the high-heel shoes on her feet suggest that she is not an invalid.  Around her pretty blonde head, she is wearing a halo of yellow flowers.  They look like wild flowers that once endured rain and wind like the numerous blades of grass in the field.  She entices people to approach her and sticks out her tongue in jest.  In contrast to the playfulness,  her physical surrounding is cold and cruel.  The metal wires and leather belts hanging above her bed are reaching down like a giant net that is about to cage and tame her.

Carol Rama
Appassionata [Passionate], 1940
Watercolor and pencil on paper
9 x 13 3/4 in (23 x 35 cm)
© Archivio Carol Rama, Turin
Collection Fondazione CRT per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea and GAM Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin
Courtesy Fondazione Torino Musei
Photo: Studio Gonella

Carol Rama
Opera n. 11 (Renards) [Work no. 11 (Foxes)], 1938
Watercolor on paper
28 3/8 x 18 1/8 in (72 x 46 cm)
© Archivio Carol Rama, Turin
Photo: Studio Dario & Carlos Tettamanzi, Milan

In Rama's eyes, only the crippled and the slaughtered are worthy of her artistic attention.  The artist's morbid fascination with things that ordinary people consider grotesque led her to make beautiful works that turn a nightmare into a dream-like fantasy.  In 1938, Rama made Opera no. 11 (Renard), it depicts dead foxes that had been made into lady's stoles as they hang beside a pair of lady's shoes.  Slaughtered and sacrificed for fashionable adornments, these foxes are hanging upside down, but their eyes are wide opening, staring back at the person staring at them.  The light wash of red color on the foxes' bodies make them look freshly killed.  The red in their eyes make them look like creatures of night but docile.  Their big red eyes and pointy noses are drawn in such childish manner that make the foxes look like domestic pets rather than predators.  The shoes in the drawing are unmatched, one has a black bow and is blue, the other one is black but plain. As they appear, these shoes are not for walking, they are misplaced accessories and reminders of a permanent state of immobility.  Three decades later, the fox stole would return in Rama's bricolage works.

As a bricoleur in the 1960s, Rama used morsels of dead animals such the skin, teeth and claw to exploit the theme of tragedy and death.  In her hands, these bits and pieces of dead parts start to come alive.  In Le tagliole (1966), a fox hide is stuck to the canvas upside down.  Without a body, its head and claw is flattened onto the surface in the way that looks like a sleeping bat in a cave.  In this work, a yellow gold oval shape replaces the dead fox's body makes it look as if the fox is about to give birth to a golden egg.  On the making of bricolage, Rama once told her interviewer: "I have to chop up either the figure or the animal like a private tragedy, which I then hope to make less tragic by the colors and by the way of painting it."

Carol Rama
Contessa [Countess], 1963
Animal claws and oil on linen
17 3/8 x 13 3/4 in (44 x 35 cm)
© Archivio Carol Rama, Turin
Photo: Pino dell’Aquila

Carol Rama
Spazio anche più che tempo [Even More Space Than Time], 1970
Rubber tire collage on canvas
43 1/4 x 47 1/4 (110 x 120 cm)
© Archivio Carol Rama, Turin
Courtesy Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin
Photo: Nick Ash

During the 1970s, Rama's work became increasingly abstract in such a way that the lines and the spaces in between are clearly separated by clean edges on the canvas.  As an artist in her 50s, Rama began to incorporate industrial materials such as tires and rubber tubes into her bricolage.  When she was a child, her father became rich by running a factory of rubber tires. Before the age of eleven, Rama lived a life of privilege as the business became lucrative, until her father's business later went bankrupt.  From a biographical standpoint, the rubber tires played a significant part in both the beginning and the end of her privileged life.  In art, Rama experimented with these rubber tires as means to add and balance the overall formal composition.  In Spazio anche più che tempo (1970), the tires are stretched out into strips, forming a horizontal pattern on the canvas.  The work has a sombre palette of black, grey and brown, and non of colors appear more expressive than the other.  This suggests the painting is abut shapes and spaces instead of being emotive.  One can imagine her process when standing a little closer to the work, as each strips of material is cut, then laid out piece by piece, dividing the space, the work gradually takes form with passage of time and effort.   

Carol Rama
Pissoirs [Urinals], 2005
Mixed mediums on printed paper
37 3/4 x 42 3/4 in (96 x 108.6 cm)
© Archivio Carol Rama, Turin
Courtesy Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin
Photo: Nick Ash

Now fast forward to the decade prior to the artist's death in 2015, Rama returned to the theme and style she first began working with watercolor.  The urinal first appeared in her 1941 drawing called Pissoir and according to the artist, when she was young she used to go around the urinals to see if there were any good-looking boys.  There she also saw the feathers of the hats of the police floating above.  In the 2006 version, the shapes of the urinals look like the shapes of the plum from the police hats.  In this instance, the urinals look sightly comical in the way that they appear as if faces smiling at you.  Rama's ability to turn something sordid and mischievous into something innocent and humorous remained in her art until the very end of her life.  Working on an existing print of a vintage atlas representing the world, she is taking the piss out of everyone who tries to make sense of her literally.  

This exhibition organized by The New Museum is extensive, it gives one a good idea of Rama's body of works from the beginning to end of her ife.  However, there is a lack of coherent theme in the overall presentation of her works, and the only thing that links all the works together are the quotes of the artist printed on the wall-text.  In this sense, we return to the idea of the show as an auto-biography of Carol Rama.  


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