Ramses Noriega confronts us with the dilemma that has haunted those who pretend to know all about Chicano art. Almost nothing has been written about his work in the over forty years that he has been active. Although he has shown widely in California and other places in the United States, Mexico and Europe, he is yet unrecognized as the pioneer and unique voice that he is.
Ramses, a man who I proudly call “friend”, is either lost to the consciousness of public discourse on Chicano art or sadly misunderstood. This is of course not Ramses’ fault, but that of those who are charged—or who have self-appointed themselves—as the custodians of the story of Chicano art.
Let me state at the outset that Ramses is not unique in this position. Far too many artists are consistently ignored while the few opportunities to showcase Chicano artists are often used on the same faces. That’s not the fault of those artists either, but it does leave few openings for the field to explore other artists, including one who has been so consistently on the scene as Ramses Noriega.
Born in Caborca, Sonora, México in 1944, Ramses begins as an artist at the beginning of Chicano art. The most important aspect of the presentation—indeed, testimony—by Rosalio Muñoz this afternoon in my opinion is the fusion of art and politics that formed the Chicano Movement since its birth. No other political movement, whether the progressive movement of the early 20th century, the Black Civil Rights movement of the sixties or the Women’s movement of the seventies can claim the power of art as a major component of its strategy that is present, and continues to be present within the Chicano Movement. (I welcome you to recall the many posters, including those produced by Self Help Graphics for the immigrant rights marches last year.)
As important as Luis Valdez was in bringing Teatro Campesino to the rural and urban mexicano masses, were the visual artists who were there at the beginning, including Andy Zermeño, Domingo Ulloa and Ramses Noriega. Each produced a body of work directly for political use.
I wont’ repeat what Rosalio has stated to you, nor what Juan has so eloquently elaborated on, but it is important that in the rush to write and re-write the history of the Movement and of Chicano art, that these roots not be overlooked. Let me give you one additional example.
Together with Sergio Hernandez, Saul Solache and Ed Carrillo, Ramses created a one of the first murals of the movement. The “Chicano History” mural of 1970 is a monumental feat that we hope to soon resurrect. [slide #1] But as we now look at this small slide of it, we can see that it was no small undertaking, even considering that four artists worked on it. The mural measures 12 by 30 feet and was fortuitously painted on eleven separate panels. Now in storage, rather than having been destroyed as would certainly have been the case if the mural had been painted directly on the wall of the Chicano Studies office at UCLA, the mural depicts the forces, both natural and earthly that the Chicano people have had to face as they come to realize their destiny. Looking back on it thirty-seven years later, it certainly seems apocalyptic, but at the same time, inspirational, for it is clear now that the worst was behind us. It is a tour de force, a fully realized composition that belies the youth of the four artists, especially when compared to other murals of that period.
Which brings me to when I first met Ramses. In 1987, when Justice Cruz Reynoso was running for confirmation of his California Supreme Court seat, I attended a fundraiser at a Westside home. It was announced that an artist had some works for sale and that part of the proceeds would go to the campaign. I went into the room where Ramses was showing his works. I liked the work but I thought it should be bigger. I sensed that Ramses’ message and talent were much bigger than the eight by ten inch images on paper that I was seeing. I asked him if he had bigger works and his response was that bigger works scared people. I told Ramses, they wouldn’t scare me.
Several weeks later, Ramses called me and said he had a large painting he wanted me to see and thought I might like. I did and immediately fell in love with “Woman as Target”. [slide #2] This work, an oil on canvas measuring 26 ∏ by 38 inches, is, I believe, one of Ramses’ strongest works. It depicts a woman, with one of her breasts smashed. It is a painterly work that evokes pain, suffering and pathos. I also like the four perritos along the top. But notice that the palette is all “wrong”. There are no bright colors. Also, the image is introspective, personal and psychological; there are no obvious overarching political, social, cacophonic statements. There isn’t a myriad of symbols all competing with each other for space on the canvas. And, except for those perritos, there is no readily identifiable Chicano iconography. Is this Chicano art?
A few months later, I acquired “Sombras del Alma” [slide #3] and “Seduction of the Artist” [slide #4]. Again these works, painted in the late eighties, don’t follow the standards that were commonly thought of as within the Chicano art paradigm.
Along the way, I have acquired other works by Ramses, including Untitled (Torso) (1992) [slide #5]. An almost abstract trace of a human body that explores the minimalism with which a skilled hand can execute a fully consummated work.
The work of Ramses is not for the faint of heart. The images call on the viewer to investigate their psyche and to delve far beyond the obvious and into the negative spaces between the shadows. Only then can one hope to understand the full impact that a Ramses Noriega can have. I tell you that when you discover a dash of yellow after years of exploring a piece, is a sublime experience that cannot be matched.
But this does not fully explain Ramses toiling in the desert for almost forty years. Perhaps part of the answer is in the fact that Ramses’ staunchly nationalistic stance was out of zink with the more “class-based” thinking of some of the early artists, most notably Carlos Almaraz. It is also true that Ramses is not known as a charmer; he’s not a “lambiscon”. It is also true that Ramses has spent much of his time out of the art centers, like Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Antonio. And yet this is still not enough to fully explain the silence. I’ll leave that answer to this question for our discussion.
Due to personal travails, Ramses returned to his religious beliefs in the nineteen-nineties, concentrating on imagery that I call “the illuminated Christ” or the “Word” as defined in the Book of John and the “last Word” as in Revelations. Apocalyptic as they were, these works were not as well received or understood as his earlier works. Yet Ramses persisted.
More recently, Ramses has returned to the expressionistic works that have been his hallmark for the better part of his career. In the works of this exhibition, one can see the traces of a life well lived, of a torment still haunting, of a master clearly at work.
It has been twenty years, almost to the day, that Ramses and I first came across each other. It has for me been a great honor and joy to bear witness to his work, to share in his trials and tribulations, and to see him once again rising and questioning the standards by which those less skilled attempt to judge his work. Ramses es un maestro in the full sense of the word that is respectfully reserved for those who, through their art, can teach us something about them and about ourselves.