ISABELLA BORTOLOZZI GALERIE, BERLIN
SEPTEMBER 11 – OCTOBER 13, 2012
Carol Rama’s first exhibition was shut down by the police, who removed her paintings from the gallery. Some of the overtly sexual watercolors on display included images of men having sex with dogs and women excreting snakes. This was in Italy in 1945. Rama (b. 1918) was a young unmarried woman, and this early institutional criticism had a temporarily corrective effect. Yet after joining the Movimento Arte Concreta and producing abstract paintings in the 1950s—like many artists in countries emerging from Fascism—Rama eventually returned to exploring explicit sexuality and set out on a Dadaist’s surrealistic course.
The exhibition at Bortolozzi takes its title from an included off-white canvas from 1970, which appears scarred by a dark curvilinear line leading downward from the top edge. This ominous curve, made from electrical cable and glue, resembles part of a very large hook. It is at once both elegant and odd, typical of the seven other canvases on view here, of which several contain Rama’s signature flattened rubber bicycle inner tubes. “Bricolage” (1966) presents a surreal cosmic view. Three moon-like discs, colored blood red and metallic silver, hover next to a length of fur, also painted silver. “Luogo e segni” (1974), is composed of flattened rubber cut and layered upon a dark gray ground. It has something of the recessive tonal space of a late Ad Reinhardt painting. The earliest works on view are two relatively conventional figurative oil paintings, “Autoritratto” (1937) on board and “Le parche rose” (1944) on canvas. The thickly painted interlocking shapes of the former and the frontal space-filling contours of the latter seem akin to Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut.
In one room of the gallery plays a filmed interview between Rama and the cinematographer Beppe Calopresti, in which Rama recounts, reminisces, and expounds upon—in one instance in song—her views on life and art. The interview took place in 2003 at the artist’s crowded, dimly lit Turin apartment cum studio; among the many mementos surrounding Rama in her personal space is the death mask of her friend Man Ray. The interview ends on a note of candor and humility typical of Rama’s personality: “I mean, what am I going to do with the Leone d’Oro? It’s true! What do I need it for? At this point, it’s time for coffee. Do you want one too?”
In following a long creative path through many cultural, political, and personal transitions, Rama steered past taboo and social agon; proscriptions were now there to be navigated or ignored. As with Louise Bourgeois or Maria Lassnig, Rama’s work is intensely, perhaps uncompromisingly, autobiographic. Something like her troubled erotic subject matter is addressed today by a younger generation of artists including Kara Walker, Sue Williams, and Marlene Dumas. For Rama, eroticism is the “rejection of all prudery. It is sensuality, being in touch with the senses, with the body, female and male.” It is also Rama’s way of acknowledging, via the body, a lifetime of difficult embedded memory.
Her father, a bicycle manufacturer, committed suicide upon becoming bankrupt. Her mother, beset by mental illness, was admitted to a psychiatric clinic when Rama was only 15. Bourgeois had her spiders—and Rama evidently has her bicycle inner tubes, strips of which have been cut and incorporated into her paintings, suggestively resembling intestines or penises, since the 1970s.
Throughout her development Rama remained largely obscure due to her transgressive and consequently unmarketable work. However, when she was included in curator Lea Vergine’s 1980 exhibition The Other Half of the Avant-Garde: 1910-1940, Rama garnered substantial attention, which encouraged her return to the more expressive watercolors of three decades earlier. More recognition came in 2003 in the form of a Leone d’Oro for Lifetime Achievement at the Biennale di Venezia; the following year saw a retrospective at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Rama’s birthplace. While Rama has long been an outsider, with time her challenging work has met with celebration.
Schöneberger Ufer 61 // Berlin, Germany