EXPERTLY PAIRED – Recent paintings by Ramiro Smith-Estrada
By Joshua Ware, 2019
The portraits included in Ramiro Smith Estrada’s exhibit Expertly Paired dazzle with their vibrant palette and intricately patterned designs. They are, indeed, visually sumptuous encounters that offer viewers aesthetic pleasure through their color and arrangement. But simply to look at his paintings for the purpose of optic gratification belies the cultural critique they wield. In his iconic meditation on Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” John Ashbery toyed with the cliché “the eyes are the window to the soul” when he wrote: “The soul establishes itself, / But how far can it swim out through the eyes?” He answered his own question, shortly thereafter, with a hard truth: “The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts, / Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and fits / Its hollow perfectly.” Indeed, Parmigianino’s eyes are not the windows to his soul because the soul – “small” and “hollow” – no longer exists.
When Ashbery proclaimed the dissolution of the soul, he embodied his postmodern moment with an all-too poignant understanding of his era. Later in his poem, he expanded upon this idea when he declared: “But your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.” By championing the surface at the expense of depth, Ashbery became a poster child for postmodernity. He challenged painters to rethink both their purpose and practice, while asking audiences to reevaluate their presuppositions about viewership and the self.
Similarly, Estrada’s portraits focus on, as he claims, the “contemporary construction of ‘self-image’.?” Just as Ashbery leveled a critique against antiquated notions of the self that fit his depthless moment perfectly, so too does Estrada reconsider the self in an era dominated by social media and, to his mind, “narcissism, the consumption of ‘cool’ culture, and the glorification of the mediocre.”
To do so, Estrada strips his figures of most physical features, replacing them with floral-patterns that circumspectly traffic in tired tropes of beauty. If postmodernity collapsed a subject’s depth into surface, then the era of social media has provided us with the ability to erase our biologically-given surfaces in favor of an ornamental veneer. As such, Estrada’s portraits extend the Ashberian logic of the self to its conceptual limit. Call it, if you will, unselfing through hyper-surfacing. Indeed, a quick survey of Instagram facial filters reveals no less than 70 options for distorting, enhancing, or obliterating one’s own image. Social media allows our online avatars to become our public personas. And the various filters, bitmojis, and photo-editing applications allow us to transform the renderings our digital avatars into whatever image we choose. These renderings, consequently, change with both our vicissitudes and an application’s available features. Moreover, they tend to disappear within twenty-four hours of posting or immediately after viewing. To wit, our self-images have become aesthetic contrivances that linger for a moment, then dissipate into the digital ether.
In addition to exploring mutable and ephemeral representations of the self, Estrada litters the foregrounds of his paintings with material objects; furthermore, he sets his figures against backgrounds of partially obfuscated text. While one could assume that the objects and text within the portraits relate in some way to the person therein, the original connections between them are mostly impenetrable to the viewer. Rather, objects and words become bric-a-brac divested of their initial signification. They transform into decorative elements that create a threadbare connection to the material world. Just as the self transforms into mere ornament, so too does our external reality.
If the portraits in Expertly Paired titillate, they do so as a rhetorical provocation that engages us in broader and more critical conversations about the tenor of our times. While Estrada’s paintings may not offer a corrective to the totalizing aestheticization of era, they do call attention to the ubiquity of the ornamental in ourselves and our contemporary moment.