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Painted Brain | Martin Ramirez And The Incarcerated Mind
art, society, and mental illness
mentalhealth,schizophrenia,emotionalcatharsis,arttherapy,
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Martin Ramirez and the Incarcerated Mind


The Myth of Sisyphus weighs heavily on my mind at times, or Camus’ take on it anyway.  His idea was that though doomed by the gods to push a rock up a hill for eternity as a punishment, Sisyphus wins in the end, gaining both freedom of mind and immortality.  The question I should have asked a couple of weeks ago at a talk on ‘The Incarcerated Mind’ at the new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) museum would have been about the paradox of having a free mind in a psychiatric institution, with the artist Martin Ramirez in the role of Sisyphus.  Fabian Deborah spoke to this idea, finding himself to be an artist in jail from his middle teens to very late twenties. He was able to take something from the containment and structure of incarceration in a way that opened his eyes to helping others do the same. Poignantly, he repeated the idea that people either transmit or transform their experiences, their traumas, their anger.  His life story says a lot about our society, that being incarcerated provided more predictability and opportunity than our society at large.  The talk was inspiring and spoke lightly to the elephant in the room, the simple fact that we have replaced, in sheer numbers, psychiatric hospitals with prisons and jails.

It was a night of connections.

Finally, weeks later I got the time to actually look at the show of Ramirez’ work.  The museum is an incredibly open and warm space, almost invisible on a rough strip of downtown 7th Street across from the Greyhound Bus station.  A broad entryway opens into an enormous bright room that allows the eighty-odd Ramirez pieces to be displayed both honored and uncrowded.   After making the rounds, I was able to sit on a bench and observe every piece in the show from a single vantage, aside from one tabletop display of a landscape painting more than twenty feet long.  Ramirez spent the second half of his life in mental institutions in central California in the middle of the last century.  He was not a very verbal person.  He was a migrant worker from Jalisco, Mexico driven north in his early twenties in search of a steady income. Ramirez was employed as a manual laborer from 1925 to 1930 but became homeless and eventually incarcerated in 1931, spending the next thirty years in psychiatric hospitals.  Eventually landing in Dewitt State Hospital outside Sacramento, he spent his time creating huge drawings, mostly pencil, on whatever paper he could find and glue together.  The pieces are geometric and austere.  Many are purely abstract while others depict people and animals on pedestals or inside boxes, complicated landscapes, laughing horsemen, or trains running in and out of tunnels against stark landscapes of wavy topography.

    His work brings to mind the work of artists like Ryan Paxton, an early contributor to Painted Brain. The iconography changed from cowboys in the 1940s to Sonic the Hedgehog in the early 2000s, but some of the starkness, the geometry, and the ground really resonate. 

    This all leaves me wistful for some of the artists I have met over the years through this project.  I don’t want to contain or detain anybody.  I believe in freedom but I also know this world in which we live, in which some brilliant and insanely talented folks still have to navigate the shit that we humans have created for ourselves.  Elyn Saks likes to mention this quote when she talks publicly, about how many people with schizophrenia are “high functioning?” The answer is an unknown because the real question is actually how many would there be if we actually supported people who needed it.  This is true about most humans.  When are we going to wake up to the fact that taking care of each other is the most valuable thing humans have?  Who knows what untold genius we loose daily to violence, poverty, and all the lovely ills of late-stage capitalism. 

     Ramirez is thought of with some concern, in that he spent his life institutionalized.  This allows for all sorts of interesting questions.  But compare that period to today.  In Los Angeles 2017 you typically have to fight an insurance company and wade through endless bureaucracy just to get some face-time with a clinician whose institutionalized mindset allows for only measured, structured, time-limited treatment for your chronic and persistent challenges of the mental illness you deal with daily.  Sisyphus has something besides immortality and mind freedom, wherever that rock is.  He has security.    

Dave Leon LCSW is cofounder and director of Painted Brain. His column, Dave’s Brain, dealing with a multitude of social issues related to our broken mental health system, common myths and misperceptions about mental illness, and the benefits and rewards of empathy, mindfulness, kindness and compassion appears exclusively here on the Painted Brain website

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