In a way, Charleston artist Ronald Ramsey and the late New York artist Anthony Dominguez are products of their respective cities. Dominguez, who preferred the term “houseless” instead of “homeless,” created drawings and fabric designs inspired by his life on the streets that were alternately heartbreaking, nightmarish, and beautiful. One of his works might be an exaggerated, horrific portrait of a brutal police officer, or a jailed Statue of Liberty, or a lone skeleton watching the skies amid the columns of a building.
Ramsey, who refers to himself as a preservationist rather than an artist, creates delicate, intricately precise drawings of old, dilapidated buildings as they might have looked in their prime, using both his own vivid imagination and meticulous research. His father worked for the City of Charleston’s Health Department, identifying buildings that were in substandard shape and needed to be torn down. That seems to be the root of Ramsey’s other artistic passion, preserving and restoring architectural hallmarks of the past, like window latches or doorknobs.
Both men had intimate knowledge of the cities they lived in, and that theme in their work is part of what led the College of Charleston to combine exhibits of each artist’s work into one showing at CofC’s Halsey Institute Of Contemporary Art — Exit/Alive: The Art of Anthony Dominguez and Ahead Of The Wrecking Ball: Ronald Ramsey and the Preservation of Charleston.
“We typically do shows that relate to each other in certain ways,” says Mark Sloan, the Halsey Institute’s Director and Chief Curator. “We showed Shepard Fairey with Jasper Johns, for example, and both of them use recurrent motifs in their work. We paired the work of an Indonesian puppet artist named Jumaadi, with Picasso’s work, and there were all sorts of rich associations between the two of them. And there are certainly connections between these two artists.”
This will be Ramsey’s first-ever public exhibit, and Sloan says that the pairing with a more well-known artist had to be just right. “We’re part of CofC, and we’re very proudly part of the city of Charleston, but we show work by national and international artists here,” he says. “Our vision is to focus on emerging, new, or oddly overlooked artists. Now I don’t think you could call Picasso or Jasper Johns overlooked, but we paired them with artists who were not as well known. In Ronald’s case, we do like to shine the spotlight on local and regional artists when we can, but treat them in exactly the same way we treat any other. We don’t punish artists for where they live geographically.”
“We refer to that as profitable friction,” Sloan continues. “Again, I wouldn’t want to limit in any way someone’s experience of that friction by naming it. I’d much prefer to put things together in such a way as to encourage people to make their own connections and forge their own sparks. I’ve found that people tend to have much richer and more interesting and complicated readings on these things than I ever could’ve anticipated.”
There are certainly superficial similarities between the two men. Both of the artists are self-taught. Dominguez lived on the streets of New York City for many years, and Ramsey, although not homeless, lives in government-subsidized housing in Charleston. But Sloan believes there are deeper connections than the two men’s outsider artist backgrounds, even if he’s reluctant to push people in one direction or another.
“Their work represents a certain longing for times past,” Sloan says. “Though I hope other people will make their own connections between the two. We’re doing these two because they’re self-taught artists who spent a lot of time in the streets and created art that is both philosophical and nostalgic.”
When asked, though, Sloan will talk about his own feelings about both artists’ work and the impression this exhibit made on him. “One of the things I hadn’t anticipated experiencing was the importance of solitude in both of these artists’ work,” he says. “Both of them have spent an enormous amount of time looking at humanity, looking at the buildings we inhabit in Ronald’s case. They’re paying attention to things most people don’t pay attention to. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of their solitary journey they’ve each taken, and the way they’ve created a chronicle of their lives on the street. There are the lessons and values that come from paying close attention to that which is all around us. In Anthony’s case, his are much more about the human condition. You ride on the subway or you sit on the steps of the public library and you watch this parade of humanity go by, and you become much more attuned.”
But as a Charleston resident, it makes sense that Sloan has been most affected by Ramsey’s work. “His observations of some of these buildings have made me look much more closely at the buildings I pass every day,” he says.