Oscar Ramirez’s paintings dig deeper. An investigation or a snapshot, each has something important to say.
When Oscar Ramirez starts a project, usually a painting larger than a window, he cannot start another until the first is finished. For Oscar, painting is a deeply personal process, an investigation that happens both on and off the picture frame, centering at the small garage he has turned into a makeshift studio.
“When I make a piece I feel like I’m saying something because I’m feeling something. I can’t lose that feeling until it’s out there.”
A recently graduated senior from Ramon C Cortines High School (or VAPA or Grand Arts), Oscar’s approach to visual art is both new and old: grounded in classical principles while also taking on color and subjectivity that keeps up with our image-saturated world. In person, Oscar’s reserved but friendly demeanor and highly curated style hint that there is so much more to know. Even for Oscar, there is still so much more to know about himself, a search that takes place on the canvas or page.
Looking at Oscar’s images feels like viewing into the most personal narratives they grapple with. In his acrylic paintings, the intersection of culture and sexuality come into focus as forces that have deeply shaped him and the visual language of his style. Softly painted Spanish statements that convey heartbrokenness float across some of the paintings on wistful ribbons, recalling the their use in Catholic imagery. The gaze of the viewer toward the subjects unavoidably intimate; the gaze can feel lustful, sensually ambivalent, or somehow even coming to terms with something.
No other of the pieces deal so heavily with introspection, symbolism and identity than The Two Oscars. The blood red mountain scape of El Salvador, where Oscar’s family emigrated from, is a backdrop to two versions of himself next to each other. One in the familiar muted cool hues pulls on a string-like artery coming from a sickly heart sitting in the middle of a black hole. The hole is right in the chest of the Oscar in the front, who looks slightly more resigned, wearing only a simple white shirt, stud earrings, and slightly shorter hair. Below is the floating text, “ya no quiero ser tu nunca mas.” (“I just don’t want to be you anymore”)
The painting is striking, spanning seven feet in length. It confronts you with two versions of the same person, one that if –you know him– is more familiar and seems a little older, even more understanding. The other, Oscar explained, is representative of the side of himself familiar to his family, the Oscar in El Salvador. The two figures are at odds but together, their postures reminding of the cultural struggle with queerness in the context of home or religion, the fluctuating identity that comes with being an immigrant or having an immigrant household, the beautiful yet painful discovery of selfhood inherent in being a young person.
Another deeply intimate painting is La Vita, a portrait of Oscar’s mother done over a patchwork collage of excerpts from an interview, newspaper text, and cutouts from a map of LA. The map and interview are fragments of a process Oscar underwent in creating the piece, to both tell the story of his mother and learn more about her story of fleeing El Salvador during its civil war.
“I always felt a stigma when talking to my mom about these kind of things and reopening wounds. I found the answers through art. Everything in the text was about her having to leave and her father being killed. It really broke down barriers between us.”
In a frantic and passionate hand, red circles are drawn around locations important to her story, places of work or home. The piece is personal, a beautiful culmination of a search for narrative. It is one that, in the context of a political climate that involves the separation of immigrant families, is made even more beautiful and necessary.
Other pieces take on a dialogue. In The Knowing, a female figure is obviously hurt. (Oscar’s friend Andrea Martinez modeled for the figure). Holding onto herself, she is joined by two cherubs, one handing her a thistle. In the foreground a dove lies dead, a black wound on its breast, and a nearby vase is knocked over. The setting of a presumably European-style garden is made ominous with the presence of oily black intruding from the background.
The Knowing is a response to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s L’innocence, a 19th century painting depicting a pastoral scene of a woman holding a lamb and a baby, a white woman fulfilling a promise: to take on the role of mother and follower of god, fitting for a work named “Innocence.” Oscar’s figure in The Knowing has seen that promise broken, perhaps deeply wronged by somebody who made it. Again, floating text sends a message: “ya no puedes vivir asi” — “you cannot live like this anymore.” The two paintings create a conversation, a critique and dialectic about femininity and autonomy, about heartbrokenness once again.
It is the heart that is central in both motif and effect in Oscar’s work. A smaller piece with a heart as the central object has it’s violent colors contrasted by a mint background. The text here says “no puedo sentir mi cuerpo, ayuda mi”– “I can’t feel my body, help me.” It begs the question of the role of the heart, both its limitless use as a symbol of emotion and its function in the body with its medically realistic portrayal in the piece.
“The heart is the embodiment of my soul and I’ve always loved to paint the heart; its a muscle, strong, vital but also hollow, and I resonated with that and using the heart to portray something personal about myself.”
In all of his pieces, there is his heart somewhere in the paint strokes, either buried or outright depicted. In the tugging search for an understanding of identity, sexuality, past or reconciliation of the present Oscar finds his work. His noble undertaking of painting, in the classical sense that the word itself summons, allows for the intimate stories he tells to emerge in full view. Lucky for us to see, even luckier unknowing of what’s to come.
Oscar A. Ramirez is a 17-year-old visual artist from Los Angeles. He recently graduated from Ramon C Cortines High School and will be attending the California College of the Arts this fall.