Witnessing the Invisible: Absence and Presence in the Work of Jim Ramsay.
“A boundary, I say, without bound, because one should differentiate the one infinity from the other.”
- Giordano Bruno, On The Infinite, the Universe, and the Worlds (1).
Jim Ramsay makes paintings, it is clear. And yet in some almost ineffable way he also makes spaces.
The objects and spaces here for instance, are familiar though private. The floor is wooden and worn and soaked in sunlight and erratic marks, which shift between obliterating and defining the grain and knotholes. The windows are clear and vertiginous, as the glass spreads a private view of scattered clouds and the roof-hung summits of a city. The walls are flimsy and provisional. And yet they are indelibly marked by the unfamiliar.
Because, so that I can see them again before I write about them, Ramsay has today propped some newer and some older works around these, the flimsy and provisional walls of his Glasgow studio (high in the eyrie of a previously industrial tenement building, which we may or may not be aware of as we try to make sense of the images he shows us). As this is a temporary measure, the paintings, mostly oil on board, rest with their lower edges on the gnarled floor like small shapes of the glimpsed. Their presence renders the whole of his studio perforated somehow, and the room is moored fast to their distillations of the unplaced within the world we know.
It’s an unnerving quality, this sense that the half-unseen is palpably present in its very near absence, and so the time I spend before the work wavers, inexplicable and inconstant. The images seem to contradict one another carefully. They are at once haunting but also filmic, conveying suggestion through almost nothing at all (a mark, a shade, a colour). The tension that the works contain is understated - low for want of a better word - and yet they can fill the vessel of a room with resonance, as they are electric in their brevity. The paintings as we see them are entirely, composedly, self contained, and yet they draw meaning from the air that surrounds them, just as they leak the afterimages of recollection.
Seeing the works grouped like this I am reminded of a train of thought that is lucid and yet essentially excluding. I will never see the inside of Ramsay’s utterly interior process. I will never know where this image comes from, or understand the anatomy of this or that mark or gesture. But I'm also aware that I don’t want to know, or to understand. I want to stay pinned by the limits of my own perception. The pieces remain both composed and quiet while their painted surfaces are highly worked, mutely conveying nothing so much as the effacing last lines of a forgotten short story. As matt and gloss planes are softly aligned, as graphite forms sink palpably into the fleshy white squares of lino, we know that their communication is complete though silent. There is nothing else to say although nothing is revealed, and we cannot recall the beginning. I am reminded of Elliot in The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock: Oh, do not ask ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit where the triteness of the rhyme evokes the smallness of our desire for certainty, for the sure identification of the liminal.
Our ability to compose absence is a complex one. I’ve heard musicians say that, when they play, each note exists with reference to the one preceding it, as well as with anticipation for that which will succeed it. For some, silence is an articulation of sound as well as a demarcation of sound’s absence, since silence frames sound as surely as sound frame silence. I can see Ramsay’s work existing in this way, with each image creating a space in relation to that which came before and that which will come after it. The paintings are moments as much as they are scenes or depictions, and as moments they exist in time, with knowledge of time’s passing. The spaces between these moments become as loaded as the moments themselves, and that which Ramsay declines to disclose becomes an ever present subtext for that which he accedes. As he does so, this absence bleeds presence in its meaning.
And so his paintings sit on the floor, resting their top lines against the wall, and the room smells of green tea and white spirit. Now I’ve seen the works again, I find they’ve trapped me somehow by their silence or, not just through their silence but through their ability to refuse my words completely. Ramsay’s ability to contain the undisclosed within his work enables his paintings to move incrementally towards the realm of the ineffable. The very absences articulated by Ramsay’s paintings allow his practice to become almost purely visual - that is, to become something that cannot be equated by its verbal description, or surmised by written discussion.
Looking at these works in the studio in which they were made, I feel that the potential of absence (or silence, or invisibility) that I find in them will perhaps always be more eloquent than its substitution. On the wall by the door is a small piece that is clearly not complete. Its form seems to shift, already hinted at but not yet fixed. And full of thought and silence.
(1). De l’infinito, universo e mondi, translated in Giordano Bruno, his life and thought, Dorothea Waley Singer, NY, 1968.