Steven Ramsey’s exhibition of paintings on glass and glass vessels, “Through a Dark Wood,” is enchanting, but not “enchanting” the adjective meaning “charming.” It is “enchanting” as in casting a spell. And Ramsey’s spell is hard to break.
The show’s title suggests a fairy tale, and the works are reminders of the original darkness of the folklore stories collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s
Ramsey’s surrealistic paintings captured me. His figures of babes and children with unnaturally large heads, thin limbs, and tiny hands dominate his scenes. Everything is strange, Hieronymus Bosch strange.
In his paintings, the virtuoso draftsman uses his facility to render his mostly monochromatic scenes realistically, while their meanings remain obscure. Each work has a ghostly quality, almost as if it were being seen through a veil or reflected in a clouded mirror.
Consider “Strange Pet (Snail).” An androgynous child holds in one hand an oversized snail with a human face and in the other a fig. In the upper left, just edging into the composition, is a sharp-eyed crow, so far merely observing.
Understanding Ramsey’s narrative is unnecessary. It’s enough to know that the child, the snail, and the bird have some relationship. To know more would lessen painting’s power.
What has the “Naughty Boy” done? On the forest floor, he rests his oversized head on one cheek with his thin arms with tiny hands crossed above it. Dressed in a t-shirt and briefs, his legs are placed in an impossible position. He appears peacefully asleep. Has he escaped punishment?
And what about the “Brown Changeling”? Another of Ramsey’s odd figures rides a pony-sized praying mantis. The boy faces outward but his eyes look off to the right, at something beyond the frame, but at what?
Ramsey’s presentation of these pieces is perfect. They are suspended by wires attached on either side of the painting’s top and then are hung on picture hooks, a traditional method for hanging paintings.
Some paintings are framed with identical kiln-cast glass frames, chock-a-block with leaves, twigs, figs, and insects. Other frames are pâte-de-verre, a technique of fusing ground glass in a mold. This process faithfully reproduces what was used to make the mold. Several of Ramsey’s pâte-de-verre frames use molds made from an accretion of nuts and bolts. From a distance they could pass as tiny shells, recalling shell art by 19th-century sailors.
In addition to the paintings, there are several blown-glass vessels with painted decoration. Only one commanded my attention: “Octopus Bottle (aurora).” Here two painted octopi wrap around an amber-colored jar-like form with two necks that look like the suckers on the creature’s tentacles. The imagery perfectly complements the form.
Perhaps Ramsey’s less interesting vessels were needed to break the spell. If not for them, I might be in the gallery still.
–Karen S. Chambers
Through a Dark Wood: New Glass Works by Steven Ramsey on view through November 19, 2011 at Marta Hewett Gallery, 1310 Pendleton St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-281-2780, www.martahewett.com.