Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Alejandra Ramos Explores House and Home in Photos and Video

Alejandra Ramos, “Second Floor,” from the Finch Lane exhibition, photo by Geoff Wichert

A pair of photographs give an idea of the large size and high quality of the homestead. “Casa” captures several buildings, a large tree, and a couple of late-model cars parked in a yard. Another, “Second Floor,” looks out into a central courtyard bounded by stairs rising to a veranda, with a graceful arch beneath, iron railings, and tile roofs. It’s clear this is not going to be a study of statelessness or poverty. It could as easily be the artists’s home in Tucson, before she moved to Provo, rather than her family’s estate — she calls it their “generational home” — in Chihuahua, Mexico. But then another, more compelling photo, this one titled “Un Ladrillo a La Vez,” or “One Brick at a Time,” captures a part of the house that is not in such good shape. In fact, the artist, Alejandra Ramos, tells us that the advancing age of her grandparents, Humberto and Norma Ramos — until recently the residents — and the sheer burden of maintaining the Casa have combined to force them to sell it and move to a more manageable abode.

No Es Mi Casa tells its story in two ways — or rather, it tells two stories, each from a different perspective. Primarily, what one sees around Finch Lane’s west gallery are black-and-white, still photographs of the artist’s father, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the house she remembers being their home, these alternating with close-up, color shots of flowers printed on textured watercolor paper, probably recalling the garden that used to grace the house and must have filled it with blossoms. Contrast exists at one end of the room, though, where the story comes to life in a video projected on the wall. Initially, these two presentations might strike a viewer as redundant.

Alejandra Ramos, “Bisabuelos,” installation photo by Geoff Wichert

That said, here’s a thought about video art. Like a cell phone, a video camera offers a way to capture events and procedures at virtually no cost and without impediment. If you don’t like an attempted selfie, delete it. A thirty minute epic costs no more than a thirty-second spot. Editing video files produces no waste: nothing physical goes on the “cutting room floor.” This makes video the perfect medium for capturing dimensions through metaphor. One such video currently running at the Kimball, part of a show about the art works of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, includes a long shot of the dust cloud trailing behind a vehicle as it crosses the desert, measuring the size of the land as well as the remoteness of the land-art by converting them into time spent and dust raised in getting there. In No Es Mi Casa, a lengthy shot of the artist’s grandmother, Norma, washing her decorative household treasures in the sink does something similar, impressing viewers with a palpable dimension of the required housekeeping.

While the video makes the task that the artist’s abuelos found so daunting feel real, the still photos are telling a related, but different story. Here the artist uses editing software to visually separate the figures of her family from their surroundings. The figures are shown much as they actually look, while the surroundings in which they remain embedded are distorted in a wavy fashion, as they might appear if seen reflected on the surface of a pond into which someone has just dropped a stone. Animated, say in a motion picture, such an effect suggests a shift in consciousness, such as a dream or flashback, or the passage of, or travel in, time. Ramos identifies this optical effect with her most powerful memories, especially those augmented by phantom smells she associates with her grandma’s wood stove, the roses and apricot trees that grew in the garden, or the sounds of group conversing during family gatherings.

Still image from the video portion of Alejandra Ramos’ “No Es Mi Casa,” photo by Geoff Wichert

It remains only to ask why Alejandra Ramos titles her family portrait “This is not my home.” Does she mean that the places she lived in Guatemala and Mexico are no longer her home? Surely she wouldn’t want to invalidate her art by calling it inadequate to the task of showing her audience where she came from. Has her desire to memorialize the moment when a home shared by three generations of her family ceased to belong to them represent a repudiation not of the image, but of the home’s actual, material form? Sometimes a house is a home, while at others it’s not, but Ramos has hinted at a deeper, more tragic meaning. Homes don’t last, any more than their occupants do. Una casa, like the families that live in it, is an event, and events are only real in the moment when they happen. Perhaps the full significance of this event, and this installation, will become more evident in time.

Alejandra Ramos: No Es Mi Casa / This Is Not My House, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 3



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