Bevan Ramsay’s installation of sculptural work Lesser Gods opened at NAC on May 11th: it’s aesthetically striking, but it also led to many conversations that evening about STC’s urban core, who it serves, and who slips through the cracks. I spoke with Ramsay that evening and we followed up online. I suggest visiting Lesser Gods before, or while, reading this.
“I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter…”
The decision to title the pieces with quotes as opposed to names stemmed from a very basic decision to respect the privacy of the subjects. Several of them asked specifically that their names not be made public in exhibiting the work, and so, for me, that determined that none of them should have the names of the subjects attached…I had so much informative and interesting material [from our discussions] that was both very personal to the subject and functionally anonymous. I reviewed my conversations with the subject and chose a quote that seemed to me to capture something of that person’s character or outlook or both.
For instance the first piece I did titled “The bottom is a really interesting place” is actually a portrait of a relatively young man (mid-thirties) who was aged beyond his years from a childhood in foster care, an ongoing battle with mental illness that began in his late teens, and life on the streets, which entails irregular and interrupted sleep as well as terrible nutrition. Incredibly, given all that, he had a remarkably philosophical view of his predicament. We spent an entire afternoon together with him telling me his whole life story, which was replete with challenges, failures, victories, and near-misses. Through it all, and despite being sleep deprived (the previous evening was very cold), he maintained a kind of stoic perspective, and almost amusement at his life’s path. So when I came to title that piece I kept returning to one comment he made about how complex and unpredictable his life of extreme poverty had turned out to be: “The bottom is a really interesting place”
The subjects’ poses are both intentional and incidental products of the process. With Lesser Gods I approached the portraits through a Baroque lens as opposed to Classical or other stylistic traditions of portraiture because of Baroque’s emphasis on conveying the idiosyncratic character and personality of the sitter. This approach seemed like the obvious choice since a big part of my goal in Lesser Gods was to have the viewer really spend some time considering the particular individual and the personality and life that led to their appearance when we met.
I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter rather than idealizing them – or worse, homelessness – in some way that might diminish the reality. When I photographed the subjects I asked each person to “pose” as they wished to be represented. From there (continuing the Baroque tradition) I permitted myself some small tweaks to that pose / posture if they contributed to or amplified an aspect of what I believed the sitter was trying to convey about themselves, or if the modification conveyed more of what seemed admirable about the person.
At the end of the day, a good artistic portrait needs an element of caricature. A lot of it has to do with creating the portrait in achromatic or monochromatic material. Without the visual heavy lifting that colour, hue or tone does in real life, you have to exaggerate what’s there three-dimensionally to capture the likeness. Considering the poses and their relation to the exhibition title, Lesser Gods references the Humanist tradition (Man as God or Man in the image of God concept while acknowledging human frailty – even emphasizing frailty – as an essential and beautiful part of being human). So, I wasn’t very concerned with making the sitters appear “Godlike” but rather to honor whatever – or how – they chose to present to me. The poses that you see are really the product of an expressive collaboration between the sitters and myself.
“…they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable…”
It took two years from inception to begin making the first piece. It was necessary to deeply research portraiture as a practice, as well as the historical position of what I was undertaking.
I had to train myself as a portraitist – largely from scratch having never done this before. But I think what really slowed me down was wrestling with the moral, psychological and emotional implications of what I was attempting. I’m not completely at peace with those aspects of the project even now, but at a certain point I decided that, for better or worse, those things probably weren’t going to get any more resolved by me so it was time to “begin.”
The formal process was really quite simple. I’d see a homeless person on the street that captured my curiosity in some way and approach them by simply saying that I was an artist and I wanted to do their portrait. The nearly universal human response to this approach seems to be flattery (mixed with disbelief and a touch of skepticism). Thankfully, in my experience, that first one always wins out, and I’d find myself in an open-ended discussion with the person. They’d ask me about myself and vice versa. They’d want to know immediately what would be involved on their end, and once they understood that all I really needed was for them to hold still while I took a few pictures we’d usually progress to a more social interaction. Once I’d outlined my project, they were eager to share their story, and anecdotes and opinions with someone who was keen to listen to their voices.
All the participants were paid in cash on the spot, after the photos had been taken. No one asked for money, and I didn’t use it as incentive, but that was definitely an important requirement from my end in approaching the project.
Everyone I spoke with was very excited to know that someone was trying in some way to communicate the experience of people from their walk of life to the rest of society. A number also asked early on that their names not be used. Personally, my read on this wasn’t that they were in any way ashamed of themselves or their circumstances so much as that they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable in some way. As far as their feelings about the representations, I hope that they’d be pleased. I had some contact information for each person, but have nevertheless never been able to track them down again. I still can’t help but look for them whenever I’m in the neighbourhoods where we met…
“…a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals…”
The work isn’t yet slated to show anywhere else, but I am submitting it to various venues. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will resonate and find an audience in most cities as the income chasm in our society continues to open and more and more people find themselves on the losing end of that equation.
Ultimately, though, and I’m planning to get started on this this summer, the final version of the pieces will be carved out of white marble. Specifically, the marble for this project comes from the quarry that was used exclusively to quarry the marble for New York City Hall (it was decommissioned immediately thereafter). I’m very hopeful I can get these shown in City Hall as part of the architecture, which would in my mind complete Lesser Gods conceptually. It’s hard to pin down what I would like to see come out of this project as a conversation. But I do hope that it might inspire questioning of what it means for our individual senses of our own humanity to be active participants in a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals by way of instrumental logic.
This is an edited version of our exchange: Lesser Gods is on display until August 3rd at Niagara Artist Centre. All images were taken by Emily Spanton, whose conversation with St. Catharines City Councillor Mike Britton, in response to Ramsay’s exhibition, is also in the June issue of The Sound, and can be read here.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.