PARIS — The work of Carol Rama has a powerful belligerence about it. Her art stands at odds with the cool, ironic, reductive (and ultimately normative) aspects of male-dominated modernism. Living a solitary, eccentric existence far removed from fashionable movements, Rama (however winner of the Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Biennale) has produced an astonishing, incendiary, lighthearted body of work that flickers with greatness. This glimmer is plain to see in The Passion According to Carol Rama, her nonetheless weirdly disjointed and uneven show, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The work calls into question the shibboleths of the ‘traditional’ art world; which is to say that it confronts a certain curatorial orthodoxy concerning conceptualism.
While radical in terms of her subject matter — her major theme being her own sexual desire — the work resembles, in some cases, Pop Art, Neo-Expressionism, Minimal Art, and Arte Povera. Put them all together in one place and she is visually grandiloquent, complex, and occasionally ridiculous. Sometimes, as with her early dreamland watercolors “Marta” (1940) and the mythic “Appassionata” (1943), the mood is both rude and sweet.
Born into a traditional, Catholic bourgeois family in Turin in 1918, the self-taught artist started with perverse and cheeky watercolors that were quickly censored. There’s something admirable about them: the joyous work has a dumb determination to visually speak on its own terms rather than cravenly court affection. Something doe-eyed and off-kilter about these works hints at what is to come: work with many formal concerns tackling notions of madness, fetishism, ordure, abjectness, pleasure, animality, death, and sex. Exuding a hot onanistic aura is her vibrant red oil painting “Masturbazione” (1944). Here I sensed a horny artist turning on the punk charm.
In the 1950s, her work took an abstract turn into a personal vision of Concrete Art. This work is kind of clunky, and failed to charm me, even as it is formally more radical than what preceded it. But Rama then moves to the more successful Bricolage series where she embedded readymade objects (like doll’s eyes) into abstract images, such as in the masterful “L’Isola degli occhi” (1966). These pleasure-puzzle works show Rama’s ability to switch the mood from witty to furious and back again.
Rama was profoundly influenced throughout the sixties by the experimental linguistic and visual poetry movement of the Novissimi. She mixed with artists and intellectuals such Carlo Mollino, Edoardo Sanguineti, Lea Vergine, Man Ray, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and even spent some moments with Andy Warhol. During this time she also experimented with embedding animal claws and fur into paint. There’s nothing infectious or engaging about them. Their furry ominousness is little more than duly exasperating.
In the seventies things again improve as she began using bicycle tires as coolly sensual minimalist material for rather meditative works, such as the multi-nippled wall piece “Autorattristatrice” (1970). Its dusty, plush darkness as sexual analogy is very effective at its 100 x 100 cm scale, converting her earlier playful, mythic suggestions into something more material and concrete, where the nipple is a portal to the noumenon.
For other pieces in this series she used screws, sacks, and inner-tubes, prosthetic feet and legs, more taxidermy eyes, eyelashes, hair, skin, fingernails, teeth, electrical fuses, batteries, medical appliances, enemas, and syringes. The work seems to consist of two parts: Marxian commodity fetishism and Huysmansian decadence. Beatriz Preciado’s excellent catalogue essay maintains that this period of Rama’s art was a “queer povera.”
After moving through a severe reductionist period in the ‘70s with sewn, graph-like works like “Luogo e segni” (1974), in 1980 she moved to rather uninteresting neo-expressionist paintings full of fatalistic imagery, like “Nuove Seduozioni,” in which a woman made out of eyes masterbates with a slithering snake, while a man falls to his death. Such frankly preposterous style swings begin to look a lot like indulgences in the dominant taste for appropriation at the time (one of almost cosmic despair). The work lacks the excitement of the transposition of style and methodology expected when an artist migrates subject matter to another medium.
But her last series of work regains originality by taking its inspiration from the mad cow disease (mucca pazza in Italian). “La mucca pazza” (1997), even with its oddly constricted and flattened feel, yanked my chain with its sexually provocative rubber cut outs. The work is halfway between clumsy and delicate in the way that Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith’s best works are. But if Rama’s analogy is between disease and sex, neither is adequately represented. AIDS might be alluded to here, but this is assumed on my part rather than demonstrated.
Now in her late 90s and suffering from senile dementia (since 2006), Rama’s imaginative vocabulary, whether mythic, minimal, pop fantastic, or queasy surreal, presents to the world a neglected body of work based in abstracted memoir. It is worthy of a Michel Houellebecq novel. Yet the exhibit was only recently conceived by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and the Musée d’Art moderne. Perhaps the art establishment has been too busy bending over backwards exhibiting works by celebrity artists who cozy up to commodity culture, rather than those that share the odd passion found in Carol Rama’s dizzy delights.
The Passion According to Carol Rama continues at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris) through July 12. The show will travel to The Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin, and the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM) in Turin.