Michelle Ramin | in real life

Michelle Ramin, 'Mona Lisa IRL' [Oil on Canvas, 26" x 38", 2016]

Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.


Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.

Michelle Ramin
Michelle Ramin

Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?

Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.

Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.

Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?

Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.

Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?

Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.

Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.

Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?

Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?

Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.

We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?

Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.

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What are galleries for? Artists as indentured servants

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it. A gallery is for showing pictures, of course. Let’s be liberal, and say it is a place for displaying works of art, or where people go to view works of art.

I’m not referring to museums of art, or state galleries. The question is really about commercial galleries. The visual artists I know appear to be, now, in a situation something like the position poets were in twenty-five years ago (not much has changed, everything has changed) when there were, in Australia, literally no major commercial publishers of poetry and a few writers I knew got together and formed a small, private press to publish each other. Over the course of the following fifteen years this small unincorporated association published twenty books and had some success. By the end of it, though, it was still publishing slim volumes—we believed in quality—to deafening silence from reviewers. One of its last books was an anthology of more than a dozen writers that did not get a single review. When we asked the editor of a nationally distributed review magazine why no article was arranged, we were told the anthology was “obviously good”. Well, thank you, we said, and the conversation ended there.

Perhaps we failed to be interesting or controversial enough. Self-reliance is not newsworthy.

Visual artists could hardly claim to be in same situation. There are galleries galore. The public listings are full of openings to attend. Opportunities are everywhere. Or, are they?

It’s not as though writers or poets can claim there is no publishing going on. What we can claim, I think, is that publishers are interested only, exclusively, in their bottom lines, in seeing their accounts written in black ink. You can’t blame them. There is no profit in poetry. And there is no profit in some difficult visual artist whose work cannot quickly establish a market value that buyers are willing to match with dollars. It does not matter if he or she is a genius. Genius doesn’t pay the bills.

The principal difference between writers and visual artists from a commodity point of view is that writers create a product that is the art world’s version of fast moving consumer goods. Buyers literally take literature off the shelves, in shops that resemble supermarkets. Decisions are made pronto! A book is a standard gift option. Visual artists don’t normally make products of this kind. Purchases are considered. The visual arts are not bought to be consumed, and set aside, in the same way books are bought and shelved. This demeans the relationship readers have with literature, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

Commercial galleries plot a course between what one must suppose is a genuine interest in art and the mundane worries of their pockets. Welcome to the world as we know it.

There is nowhere for visual artists to go that is not smell of commercial relationships. Writers, by contrast, are the piece-workers of the art world, huddled in their garrets, earning a pittance for every thousand words: the smell of money rarely reaches their rooms.

Above all else, it’s disatisfaction that they share; and isolation from the very people who want to make contact with them.

Commercial galleries, if the system that the galleries describe were to work as perfectly as everyone hopes, offer more than representation. There is supposed to be much else that comes with the relationship: the problem is, really, whether or not this “much else” actually materialises.

Commercial galleries are supposed to:

1] Represent artists—that is, speak for them, and about them; negotiate for them; promote them.

2] Provide exhibitions or shows at least every two years.

3] Maintain up to date records of works held on consignment and try to sell these works.

4] Help to build an artist’s reputation by promoting scholarly and other writing about their art.

5] Generally, manage the relationship between the artist and the market to maximise the artist’s opportunities to profit from his or her work.

If galleries actually achieved this for more than a handful of the most prominent visual artists, artists would think, no doubt, that the galleries were doing a good job.

But they are not doing it.

A mid-range artist in Australia, for example, exhibiting 30 works at a significant commercial gallery once every two years, and selling perhaps 20 of these (a successful show!) for an average price of AU$4,000, brings $80,000 to the cash register. Forty per cent of this goes to the gallery: $32,000. This leaves $48,000 for the artist. A pittance for two year’s work. It’s no wonder they have to have second jobs! (Let’s not even mention the tax situation.)

No-one attacks the galleries. Why would anyone want to? Even if there were any public discussion of commercial galleries, surely artists would not have anything bad to say about the galleries that are, of course, the very arteries through which the life-blood af art courses…

Absence of discussion and debate does not mean absence of comment. It is well-known, of course, who the bad apples are. (Who knows, we might even get around to naming them here in future episodes: stay tuned…)

It’s the relationship between artists and galleries I’m interested in. Now, do you notice anything odd about the following statements quoted, verbatim, from the ACGA website:

Vision:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association seeks to contribute to the visual arts in a way that enhances understanding of and support for the primary market while cultivating sound entrepreneurial ethics and an ever-strengthening national and international market for Australian art.

Mission:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association exists to represent, promote and further the interests of Australian commercial galleries whose core business is the ethical representation of living Australian artists. A dual aspect of the Association’s mission is to develop Australian artists’ livelihood and reputation while contributing to an enhanced public understanding of contemporary Australian art in the primary market.

I think there are several strange things going on in these quotes, not least of which is that the vision statement does not envision anything (unless it is that the national and international market for Australian art is “ever-strengthening”). I wonder, for example, why this organisation is so obsessed with ethics and ethical bahaviour. Has someone accused it or its members of something terrible, or do their consciences need to be salved?

I mention this obsession with ethics in the vision and mission statements of the ACGA because the point at which the code discusses a gallery’s right to receive a commission on all sales of an artist’s work strikes me as being distinctly unethical.

The partnership between the gallery and the artist establishes commission as payment by the artist for the gallery’s intensive ongoing work and representation in the development of the artist’s career, reputation and livelihood. As such it should be recognised as an agent’s fee, earned by the gallery in return for the type of ongoing services listed under item 4.

Item 4 in the code of practice lists a whole heap of things that galleries barely do at all for most artists, and do very badly most of the time. (Read the whole sad catalogue at the ACGA website.) The code is, in fact, a strained attempt to justify a claim that artists, particularly struggling, unknown artists, but also middle-rung artists, have little or no power to deny to galleries.

Artists, in fact, have to put up and shut up in the face of galleries who do nothing for them between annual or bi-annual shows but still want 40 per cent of sales they haven’t been involved in.

Wouldn’t it be fairer, more ethical, as a starting point in negotiations between artists and galleries, to say that galleries were entitled to up to 40 per cent commission on any artworks they choose to show, or choose to hold on to between shows?

You can hear the director-fussbudgets of galleries around Australia huffing, puffing and moaning already, can’t you? Oh, dear, how will they ever earn a living if they only get commission on the works they really want to sell?

The services these fussbudgets (don’t go off to the dictionary: it means one who is overly particular about unimportant things) offer to artists are described in terms that make their gallery businesses sound like retirement homes for librarians. They promise to be monitoring, archiving, maintaining and pursuing. And when they’re not doing that, they’re cultivating, collaborating and recording. All very important stuff, I don’t doubt. Meanwhile, it is the artist who is doing the real work.

The list of services that galleries perform to earn their commission is a furphy, a wild rumour, a tall story, and everyone knows it. Artists make their reputations by sticking at their work. It is a hard slog that, even for artists of acknowledged brilliance, goes on for years. To pretend this isn’t the case, and instead put about that the development of an artist’s reputation and career is something that is strategised by whispers and nods between gallery directors and clients with too much money in their pockets, is simply to lie. And there’s nothing ethical about that.

What is going to change, though? How can the system be changed? Important questions, to be answered in a later post.