Les Ramsay

Les Ramsay
galerie antoine ertaskiran, Montreal
February 22 – March 25, 2017

In this radiant array of works by Vancouver-based artist Les Ramsay, we found ourselves enmeshed in fabric heaven. Ramsay’s subversive paintings integrate textiles with seamless grace and funky abandon. In paintings, sculptures and embroideries, the artist collides formalist algorithms with vernacular tropes and the homespun, but far from cornpone, folklore of the moment he finds himself in, into sophisticated painted compositions that blur distinctions between high and low, artisanal craft and streamlined facture, empathy and abjection. Effectively, he elevates domestic kitsch by eliding couture décor with utopian signifiers, and stirs them together in a heady, explosive mix.

Ramsay has a rare talent for needlepoint and it shows here. In the smaller works with their custom luxe frames so redolent of a certain nostalgia for encasing and showcasing valuable art objects, the counted thread embroidery works a magic undreamt of by Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier1. However, Ramsay is clearly an advanced painter and the term “fabric assemblages,” that has been applied to his work is really just a novel way of talking about the facture.

The way that Ramsay tackles his surfaces, the exquisite nature of placement and vectoral wherewithal of textile integration, and his very subtle, seductive palette – all these convince us that he has looked long and hard at formalist abstraction. He often riffs on the history of the medium as only a true insider can, suggesting that he has found a workable exit strategy from the far side of the Modernist wormhole, and his collection and use of sundry objects of domestic kitsch – the ceramic cat, say, in Smitten and the Klepto, (2017) – point to a way out of and beyond historicity and the formalist impasse. And he puts paid to any residual understanding of the purity of the medium in a work like Herbie (2017) with its fabric surface littered with what look like spit-on, spittle-daubed seeds or pits.

Ramsay’s studio-based practice is expansive. His studio boasts a staggering inventory of found objects, textiles, and useful detritus – and he mixes traditional painting mediums with needlepoint and folk art assemblage techniques with the spirit of a true bricoleur. Despite the collision of sundry elements that should spark counterpoint, Ramsay keeps things on an even keel, and the quiet but pervasive humour and irony in his work in no way undermines its innate sense of balance and trans-referential integration. His genius for pun-spun collaging of heterogenous elements is always playfully in the foreground. However, lurking beneath his surfaces – all his surfaces, with only the bare sharper-than-sharp fin of the shark on view – lies a very sophisticated painting mind.

Ramsay casts a wide referential net that captures Canadian landscape (history) painting, folk art, handicraft, what have you. The cross stitching is incandescent in its mien and reminds us of what he must have learnt from skateboarding (he was a pro before an injury stymied his game). What Rodney “Mutt” Mullen, (who revolutionized skateboarding as a teen) means when he speaks of the “the ones and zeros of the synaptic idiom” while describing how skateboarders learn their acrobatic tricks, well, we can envisage what that means for a painter who is in the zone, the way Ramsay almost always is.2

In paintings like Blue Fog Whistle (2016), with its strange whistleblower’s text; Live and Let Diet, Night at the Museum (2017) with its quasi-Egyptian dynastic head; and The Sisters (2017) with its sibling Kachina Dolls, Ramsay demonstrates his formidable constructive range. And a work like Mes Amis (2017), with its acrostic of cats, puts the megalopsychic capstone squarely on the artist’s whole endeavour.

Like fellow travellers David Armstrong Six and Valerie Blass, and fuelled by dimensional shifts within Dadaism and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines of the 1950s, which continue to inspire him, Ramsay merges the sacred and the profane, kitsch and high cultural icons, to generate complex painting environments that throw his viewer off-guard and catch them up in uncharted terrain. His tiered work is both experimental and interrogatory, and dedicated to breaking down boundaries and blurring still-embedded distinctions both inside and outside the medium. Here is a perfect storm of the everyday and the outré, fabric and acrylic paint, surface and support. He is a feral scavenger of kitsch when kitsch is a kick-starter not only of paintings and sculptures alike, but of wild new ways of making meaning.

1. Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier: Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, Walker and Company, 1973.

2. Brendan I. Koerner, “Silicon Valley Has Lost Its Way. Can Skateboarding Legend Rodney Mullen Help It?”, WIRED online, posted Jan. 27, 2015.