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STEPHEN HUMPHREYS: COMMUNICATING THROUGH WALLS, THE PHOTOGRAPHIC DEVELOPMENT OF ALFREDO RAMOS

Alfredo Ramos, through the different technical and subject-matter stages of his career, has dealt with one consistent theme: communication.  For a Cuban that has a shaded meaning.  Communication is a basic need, but one that strains for an outlet, one that often occurs in isolation.  As a result, Ramos achieves a certain privacy and urgency of feeling with the viewer as he reveals his images.

Ramos photographs according to his own history.  Educated as a geographer and apprenticed on the staging of performance art, he takes the tension between the two and very deliberately searches in his photographs for motion in stasis, for transience in permanence.  The images operate on a scale of geological proportions, nearly endless and indefinite in time, overarching and approaching infinity in area, yet full of particular fossilized details as Ramos’ focus ranges through the layers, strata, and patinas of each object and its palimpsest of meanings.

In his first’s photo series the human being is shown as a part of the context, almost dissolved in it, and doesn’t seem more important than the lights and shadows of the objects the spectator is barely able to decode.  Ramos understands this series as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of an individual in a society organized and focused on masses and shows his loneliness and isolation in the urban landscape. The images are strongly influenced by his work as a light and stage designer in an experimental theatre group. The photographs should be seen as based in the documentary tradition of the Cuban life photography, but in modern Cuba, that means more deconstruction than construction.  It is influenced by thoughts of decay, breakdown and dissolution in a monolithic society, one that is precariously stable, one that is adaptable but essentially inflexible on its core principles, though that core is difficult to locate and define.

Thus, there is a quick departure from what is familiar, as the streets and buildings and ancient murallas of Havana undergo transformations in time and space, reduced as they lose their focus to archetypes and, finally, abstractions.  But as the focus on walls and streets dissipates, a new focus emerges with disconcerting clarity on a world that can never quite be captured, that is never fully formed, that is always in the process of becoming, that broadcasts an illusion of solid form when it is, in fact, a fantasma.  That is the nature of communication, whether through words or images. And that is the strength in communicating archetypes and abstractions.

In the end the focus traverses–never quite lighting in one place or instant–communication through every means, from images disassociated from any physical form to the physical form of the city itself.  His early work comprised documentary photography of the physical space of Cuba, its streets and alleys, transformed into more abstract forms.  Then Ramos progressed to communication through graffitis, writings deconstructed from the walls of Havana into abstract forms without any definite location in time or space, some emerging and some receding within the overwritten layers, as dictated by the f-stop of his Congo lens.

Ramos continued to play off this idea through photographs of mouths, organic portals of communication, taken from television screens and broken down to their simplest form as dot pixel matrices. He entitled the series Palabras (Words).  These are disembodied mouths, stripped from their corporal being and transmitted into space, and photographed from this remove.  These are mouths in motion, caught in mid-process of forming syllables and therefore leading backwards and forwards in time and meaning.  We do not capture them in a moment so much as follow their trajectories.  We can mentally complete their forms or further dissolve them.  We can make them living flesh with a unique identity or fashion them into electron streams flowing through digital portals and endlessly replicated.  Ramos places that process curiously under our control.

In the series named Vestigios Alfredo talks about the result of the artistic process through the prints of the process itself. He takes close ups photos of the tiles of the bathroom he uses as a photo lab. Usually he places his wet test prints on that wall to see and correct the results. During the years of his work the tiles of the wall have been in contact with the chemical’s agents used in the printing process of photography. The combination of the natural cracks of the tiles with the chemicals made a sort of abstract drawings on them. Then Ramos set about photographing the modern cave markings close up, without any context, but with his usual methodical deliberation and exactitude in 40-second exposures.  The result is an anxious combination of method and riot, off balance and yet at equilibrium, possessing the same confusion of law and lawlessness that occurs unseen, unceasingly, in our nerve endings, in our DNA, in the capillaries of our pupils, communicating with volts, genes, corpuscles, waves and particles of light.  Ramos has cracked open this universe of inner worlds, communicating with us as he interconnects them, on his bathroom wall. He relates this work with his series of graffiti photos in which he tries to focus in the way people try to transcend, or break the isolation of their own lives, placing a sign in a surface that could survive them. This series seems to be born of his many efforts to do the same, using his photography as a media to do it.  He understands the tiles of his laboratory as a sort of archive of all the prints of the intents to communicate via the artistic process. Related with his previous work, this one seems to be a new approach to the world of sensations and feelings suggested by his earlier works, but closer to the formal discourse of abstraction he developed in recent works.

Ramos’ exhibition of original, single-edition works in the Havana Biennial took these explorations a step further.  The series entitled Otras Palabras, Other Words, returns to the roots of documentary photography of the crumbling walls of Havana, and to Ramos’ notion of graffiti communication on those solid forms that is set free from time and set into motion.  Instead of being treated as enduring monuments, Ramos breaks the wall-space into unrecognizable, abstract, fractal images that may resemble aerial geography or alveoli dispensing oxygen, geological formations or rain streaking the sky.  As these images emerge the walls disappear once again into detailed nothingness.  And yet the walls remain in place, ready to appear (again, at our own summons).  The walls are transformed into quantum phenomenon whose existence, motion, and location are hardly verifiable.  They are captured in the state of almost becoming, on the verge of being an image or an object.  And we are left with another conundrum of communication–between ourselves and the object, between ourselves and the image, between the object and the image:  Where does the image depart and the object appear?

Departure is one of the avatars of communication, which is itself a dance of connections and separations.  Departures cause separation, and the pangs of separation and isolation are the principal subjects and objects of communication.  Our primary words address meetings and departures from our fellows and from our physical person.  We also have spiritual departures.  We have departures from places.  And departure is a grand overarching theme of Cuban art and society, a persistent dream that never occurs, to leave and become reconnected in the same instant.  Caught in a particular vortex of politics and geography that restrains communication, communication strains to occur, from the people, from the island itself, its very objects, the stones of its walls and its artwork.

These works from Otras Palabras are not multiple prints but original works, with Ramos treating each silver gelatin print as a unique creation, and thus its departure and reconnection is final.  The photographs hung in the Convento de San Francisco de Asis as part of the IX Biennial de la Habana, before traveling to the United States as part of a group show of Cuban artists, entitled Punto de Embarque, at the Tina Newton gallery in Birmingham, Alabama.

In Cuba, a punto de embarque is mainly a place where, to meet the logistical challenges of transporting the population, Cubans gather to be herded into whatever passing cars, trucks, buses or carriages are heading the direction they need to go. Also, once people have arrived at their jobs, it is the place where workers gather to organize territories and responsibilities before dispersing to their assigned tasks. Puntos de embarque are ubiquitous, on street corners in metropolitan Havana and in the slightest patch of shade in the remotest corner of the sugarcane fields of Cuba

Punto de embarque is also a metaphor for the gathering of the force and ideals of the combined populace, a metaphor that has many meanings for different people. To the government and its backers, it means harnessing the will and patience of the people for the revolutionary cause. For refugees from Castro’s regime, it means the place for launching whatever makeshift raft or trial balloon they hope will take them to freedom. It embraces risks, possibilities, and potential setbacks, as well, the hopes and fears of the Cuban people.

The original works of Ramos are another punto de embarque.  They skirt these mundane politics, but encompass the forces of decay and regeneration, the isolated yearning to communicate and connect.  They are a departure from the documentary and animist traditions of Cuban art, a foray into contemporary style, conceptualism, and abstraction, while communicating their Cuban roots.  Each phrase is carefully chosen to speak the artist’s mind, and this can be a long and enduring conversation.

Stephen Humphreys (Curator of Punto de Embarque at Tina Newton Art Gallery Birmingham), Athens, 2006