Chuck Ramirez’s name has been familiar to San Antonio for decades but lately his name is inescapable in the San Antonio art scene. Two retrospective exhibitions have opened this month in the McNay and Ruiz-Healy galleries and the city has been invited to remember this powerhouse of a local artist, or perhaps to meet him for the first time.
Ramirez passed away in a bicycling accident in 2010, right at the beginning of what many were calling the height of his artistic career. For many years Ramirez was a commercial graphic designer, putting his eye for color into the labels and advertisements behind HEB brands, but it is his photography and passion for making art in our city that will live on.
“All This and Heaven Too“ is on display in the McNay through mid-January. The exhibition focuses on Ramirez’s more popular works. The first things viewers encounter are eight-foot-tall Christmas trees swathed in light and flowers, all in bold monochromatic colors. Joy and goodwill are characteristics often attributed to Ramirez himself, and it’s practically bottled in his Christmas trees.
The rest of the spaces guide the viewer through sharp images of handbags and their contents, empty pià±atas and chocolate box tins, hospital flowers and cast-off paint cans. The photographs are very large and detailed, almost abstracting ordinary objects and turning them into bold, intensely colorful and intriguing compositions. This is pop art that takes a step away from commenting on commercialism in favor of referencing people and consumption.
Ramirez captures a certain Tex-Mex spirit in his work. A massive print of a Whataburger cup is the more obvious reference, but the exhibition also highlights a series of photographs taken in his grandmother’s kitchen while she cooked. Viewers are also introduced to his intensely intricate prints of table spreads. In one, we see the aftermath of a taco lunch with leftover tortillas, salsa, beer cans and crumpled napkins; in another, the altar setting for someone’s celebration of Dios de Los Muertos.
Ramirez shows his viewers the art made by simply living. We eat, we cook, we go to work, we move on, we use things, and in Ramirez’s body of work it’s the things we leave behind that are seemingly indicative of a life well lived.
“Chuck in Context“ is on display at the Ruiz-Healy gallery through mid-October. Here viewers can see Ramirez’s text-based series. Words are superimposed over photographs. An opulent room full of light and luxurious furniture is labeled “VILLA.” The man in a wig is a “QUEEN.” The two gentlemen are “CURATORS” and the shot of Patriots football players huddling up on a TV screen are labeled “VIAGRA.”
This is the first time this series has been shown in its entirety. Ruiz-Healy represents the Chuck Ramirez estate, and a portion of the sales from this show will be donated to Casa Chuck, a residency program for writers, art makers, musicians and curators hosted in his former home.
Friends of Chuck Ramirez called him “˜Tia Chuck.’ Ramirez had a heart for the artists of Texas and was on the board of Blue Star Contemporary Arts, where space for artists to show their work is increasingly accessible. He made work that speaks to the lives of San Antonio’s people, work that can be seen here, across the United States and even in the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of American art.
To know Ramirez’s work is to know a little more about the city of San Antonio and its people.