Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez


Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez was an exhibition that was on view at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from October 13, 2017 through January 7, 2018. A catalogue that accompanied the exhibition–with a gorgeous design by Jeff Weyer–is available online at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago (more about this bookstore later, as we are waiting to see if a discussion they hosted will be turned into a podcast. At that time I’ll share more about why this UW-Madison exhibition received attention from a store at the University of Chicago).

UPDATE: The book has been reviewed by the New Art Examiner.

The exhibition was really a beautiful installation (photos are by Eric Tadsen). The Rowland Galleries at the Chazen are two rooms totaling approximately 5,000 square feet. What I love about these galleries is they are not a “white box” space, but instead have warm wood floors and a wood ceiling. The exhibition included large paintings in addition to some smaller works–painted, drawings, prints, digital, and sketchbooks–so the design really took advantage of the different kinds of spaces available in the galleries. In the layout I was able to accomplish some visual play between the works, such as placing drawings opposite the paintings they inspired (rather than next to them), allowing the very important edges of certain paintings to be seen on approach, and displaying two works from university collections (the Sheldon Museum of Art and the Chazen) that had never been shown previously to serve as the dramatic entry to the exhibition.

Programming accompanied the exhibition. In addition to the opening lecture by artist Derrick Buisch, related programming included Dan Ramirez and Richard Shiff in conversation on November 2, 2017 at the Chazen (video starts with images from the catalogue; talk starts at 1:04), and a lecture by the artist Buzz Spector, titled Brush Music, held at the museum on November 9, 2017. There was also a poetry reading on December 7, 2017 by the Bridge Poets (the gorgeous poems were posted on the museum website, but are no longer available).

The exhibition was laid out in three sections: Early Work, Recent Work, and Drawings. In reality, the layout was not strictly chronological, but placed works that were visually related to each other in proximity to convey the consistency of the artist’s vision over time, and to engage the works in conversations. The gallery texts were not extensive. In addition to tombstones, the installation included:

An introduction

Chicago-based artist Dan Ramirez employs a consistent visual vocabulary to explore abstraction, religion, music, and play. Adapting the language of minimalism with a late 20th-century experience, Ramirez’ work is both personal and multifaceted. In his art making, music, philosophy, and perceptual games form the foundation for the demanding work of painting. In the interplay between physical space and the perception of depth–or what is seen and what is uncertain–the artist wrestles visually with faith and doubt, a conflict that has been carried throughout his career. There is beauty and surprise here, along with quiet, presence, and visual power. Behind the scenes are obsessions, questions, doubts, maybe some certainties and certainly some denials, but there is also playfulness and pleasure, depth and light, surface and space. There is, basically, quite a lot to see.

Early Work

Ramirez began the TL-P works in the mid-1970s. Titled for the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, an early 20th-century analytic philosopher, it is in this series that the artist developed his vocabulary. Integrating the Minimalist terms of line and color into large spaces of gradated washes that reference early 19th century Romanticism, the resulting images challenge pictorial and conceptual certainty. The print portfolio, Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus: An Homage to Olivier Messiaen, is an early example of the artist’s exploration of music and religious devotion, particularly inspired by the work of the French 20th-century composer. The Celestial City works, titled for a Messiaen symphony of the same name, continue the artist’s grappling with the idea of devotion. By combining motifs of gothic architecture with references to the expressive power of Messiaen’s music, Ramirez developed a luminous vocabulary to express a contradiction between faith and intellect, certainty and the unknown.


Ramirez has utilized graphite and washes on paper to explore perception and spatial relationships throughout his career. The drawings examine how play and experimentation are central to his art-making processes. Some are stand-alone works: dense graphite and silver pencil trapezoids, precisely rendered, with shiny, reflective, perceptually disruptive surfaces; others are preparatory drawings for paintings. Sketchbooks delve further into experiments of color and spatial relationships.

Recent Work

Ramirez has explored media throughout his career, from early drawings and paintings to print-making, shaped canvases, and collaged elements of all kinds. Digital-born works signal a recent shift in the tools and methods the artist utilizes for sketching and production. The “illuminated manuscripts” continue Ramirez’ interest in the work of Messiaen but incorporate radiant metallic surfaces. With a selection of the La Duquesa, Nuages and La Luz paintings, considerations of light, spiritual contradiction, and music continue, but now incorporate visual responses to art work seen during the artist’s travels in Spain. Pushing the exploration of surface and depth with a representation of peeled-back surfaces and celestial bodies, the Aletheia works suggest both physical revelations and cosmological dimensions. These more recent works unite the complex surfaces and gradated fields of the artist’s earliest efforts with the imagery of revealing, bringing into doubt that which lies beneath, and providing a bridge for Ramirez’ lifelong visual and intellectual concerns.

To see a checklist and read the essays, well hey, buy the catalogue!


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