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Ocula Insight

Christina Ramberg and the Making of Husbands

Sarah Messerschmidt Berlin 25 October 2019

Christina Ramberg, Probed Cinch (1971). Exhibition view: The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020). Courtesy KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Frank Sperling.

The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue is an apt title for this exhibition at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020), which revolves around the work of Chicago Imagist Christina Ramberg. Borrowed from a BBC documentary, the title implies that gender roles are constructs, which occupied Ramberg throughout her career.

Curator Anna Gritz expands on this concern by putting key works by Ramberg, including paintings and sketches from the 1970s and early 1980s, in conversation with those by 15 other artists who carry Ramberg's inquiries into contemporary discourses, including Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, Konrad Klapheck, and Senga Nengudi.

Exhibition view: The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020). Courtesy KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Frank Sperling.

At its core, The Making of Husbands reflects on the body's interdependency with its structural surroundings, foregrounding Ramberg's sharp, figurative paintings to highlight concerns with how form is restrained, bound, transformed, and essentially constructed to satisfy cultural norms. Black Widow (1971) and Probed Cinch (1971), for instance, show figures girdled by corsets and delicate lingerie; while Willful Excess (1977) depicts a torso wrapped in a bandaged shroud.

To enter the exhibition, one must first unfasten the latch of a child safety gate. Though innocuous enough, this modification of museum infrastructure reflects Ramberg's proposal that gender stereotypes are reinforced by the constructs of vernacular culture. GATES (2019) is by Ghislaine Leung, who is also responsible for clusters of glowing mushrooms sprouting from corners and electrical outlets—several more of these blockades are stationed throughout the exhibition's three galleries. Introducing domestic furnishings into the museum appears to resist the segregation of public and private while playing with the notion of permission (to touch, to enter), and quietly challenging behavioural expectations within the institution. Elsewhere, Richard Rezac's abstract sculpture Lancaster (2004), a pair of extended and overlapping balustrades painted baby blue and pastel peach, stand along a wall unable to fulfil their function.

Christina Ramberg, Black Widow (1971); Richard Rezac, Lancaster (2004); Gaylen Gerber, Backdrop/The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue (n.d., 2019) (left to right). Exhibition view: The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020). Courtesy the artists, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Illinois State Museum, Illinois Legacy Collection; Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna/Rome. Photo: Frank Sperling.

A large portion of the show examines how garments and adornments—themselves structures of constraint and expression—function as markers not only of gender and identity, but also of their politics. Diane Simpson's Box Pleats (1989) and Vest - red/gray (2008) consider the dialectic between the social and practical roles of feminine attire, and yet reject any opportunity to expose a womanly figure beneath their architecturally rigid forms. Placed near Ramberg's paintings of corseted bosoms and glistening ribbons is Backdrop (2019), Gaylen Gerber's wall covering of grey folded paper suggestive of the pleats of a modest skirt, visualising a cultural double standard that demands women be both chaste and sexual.

Ana Pellicer's Anillo liliputense, producto de exportación (1981) sits off to one side: an enormous copper ring made to the scale of a finger of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Pellicer softly mocks the tradition of national gift-giving, echoing France's gesture to America with a sardonic acknowledgement of U.S. relations to Mexico, while also foregrounding Mexican traditions of copper jewellery-making, a craft mostly associated with women, and not typically elevated to the status of art.

Ghislaine Leung, SHROOMS (2016); Ana Pellicer, Anillo liliputense, producto de exportación (1981) (left to right). Exhibition view: The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020). Courtesy thee artists, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; ESSEX STREET, New York; Ringier AG; Gaga Fine Arts, Mexico City/Los Angeles. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Throughout The Making of Husbands, the rejection of gender constructs instigates an uncoupling from the structures that support them. Drifting through the main exhibition hall, the usually bright 1960s melody 'On Broadway' takes a sinister tone in Kathleen White's The Spark Between L and D (1988). In this looped four-channel video installation, White dons a nurse's smock covered in international flags and thrashes her face until it bleeds before binding herself with surgical gauze, all while singing the song's lyrics. A response to the AIDS crisis, the artist's discordant warbling expresses grief over the tragic losses of the epidemic, and laments the fragility of the gay body in heteronormative systems. In another room, Terre Thaemlitz's Soulnessless (2012), an 80-minute anti-religion manifesto incorporating gospel into its soundtrack, condemns the policing of individual gender and sexual expression by organised religion.

Sara Deraedt, Nilco (2009); Kathleen White, The Spark Between L and D (1988) (left to right). Exhibition view: The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (14 September 2019–5 January 2020). Courtesy the artists; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; ESSEX STREET, New York; the Estate of Kathleen White; Martos Gallery, New York. Photo: Frank Sperling.

From a disavowal of conventional gender roles to the critique of systems that benefit violent and divisive definitions, this incisive show explores decades of work dedicated to liberating bodies from the structures that seek to shape them, albeit from a predominately western perspective. That Ramberg's work has been set 'in dialogue' in 2019, however, with queries she raised in the 1970s around the body and dynamics of power that are regrettably still relevant today—demonstrates how much more is to be done. —[O]

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