The Abject in Christina Ramberg’s Torso Paintings
Christina Ramberg (b. 1946, Kentucky; d. 1995, Chicago, IL) was one of the “Chicago Imagists,” a group of artists who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s. The group incuded Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and Ed Paschke, representational artists who were influenced by Pop art, including comics and advertising, folk art, outsider art, and Surrealism. An avid collector, Ramberg’s numerous notebooks and photographic slides documented and catalogued everything from paper dolls, traditional clothing, sailing knots, medical illustrations, wig advertisements, and early 20th century undergarments. In the decade between 1971 and 1982 she created torso paintings beautifully rendered in textured patterns in acrylics on masonite using her characteristic flat style with heavy, cartoonish outlines and muted colors. In this case study I will trace the development of Ramberg’s torso paintings through the course of the decade using three examples and how they were interpreted by critics in order to examine the concept of abjection in the paintings.
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines the abject as an “object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject.”1 That arrested passage from subject to object, that abject intermediary/“borderline” position, can be applied to the condition where the child cannot separate itself from its mother. It is “caught up within a suffocating, clinging maternal lining, the mucous-membranous shroud of bodily odors and substances, the child’s losing battle for autonomy is performed as a kind of mimicry of the impassibility of the body’s own frontier, with freedom coming only delusively as the convulsive, retching evacuation of one’s own insides, and thus an abjection of oneself.”2 Ramberg’s ungendered, robotic torsos create this simultaneous sense of attraction and repulsion. Typical of the abject, the figures unravel, blurring the distinction between inside and outside. Because Ramberg rejected the sexist interpretation of her early works (lace-corsetted female torsos sometimes entrapped while removing clothing overhead and in other “compromising” positions alluding to BDSM), she purposely made her torsos increasingly ambiguous and abstracted, becoming alien, hybrid shapes. Her figures became less sexualized and more grotesque. Using three examples of Ramberg’s torsos, I will discuss how abjection, especially as it relates to the rejection of one’s mother and the prescribed societal eroticization of the female body, manifested itself in Ramberg’s torso paintings.
Christina Ramberg, Black Widow, 1971, acrylic on masonite 31” x 18 1/2”
Ramberg described her experience as a girl watching her mother dress for an evening out:
[She] would wear these—I guess that they are called “Merry Widow”—and I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body, how it pushed her breasts and slendered down her waist. I think that the paintings have a lot to do with this, with watching and realizing that a lot of these undergarments totally transform a woman’s body...Watching my mother get dressed I used to think that this is what men want women to look like, she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating...in some ways, I thought it was awful.3
Ramberg said that these paintings were her intent to show the psychological binds that women are caught in; she used clothes and undergarments as the metaphor to achieve this end. She played the voyeur in the paintings, catching the dressing figure in the process of becoming an ideal. However, in doing this, she encountered an irony in that she herself was female. According to author Carol Becker, the final authority did not rest with Ramberg as the painter, the creator of images. Becker argues that through the process Ramberg learned that the “symbolic meaning of women’s appearance, gesture, posture, garments, and undergarments, had been reified over centuries into codes of representation.”4 Therefore, certain ways of depicting the female body will always suggest enticement. Women themselves have internalized centuries of tradition, always leading them to eroticize their bodies in prescribed ways. Although Ramberg insisted that these works were not about exploiting women, they were found to be enticing to those aroused by female vulnerability.
Even more unnerving is the self-abnegation that goes with learning about the fundamental need in women’s minds to transform their bodies for others (usually men). It is not just an oedipal desire to possess the mother’s body which is ultimately at issue. According to Becker, “once women come to perceive their bodies as inadequate, they lose the sense of themselves as whole, integrated, human beings.”5 This self-abnegation, which might be considered a form of abjection, leads Ramberg into her next series of torsos...because the lessons learned in the body, whose freedom or absence of freedom, whose nakedness or fear of nakedness, also reflects a woman’s psychic liberation.
Christina Ramberg, Wired, 1975, Acrylic on masonite, 49 1/8” x 37 1/8”
In Wired many of the formal elements that were present in Black Widow are still recognizable, like stockings and coiffed hair; however, the stockings and hair are focally frayed and unraveling, appearing like pubic hair. The hair bundles are explanted to arms, chest, abdomen, and crotch. Rather than being in profile, the perfectly symmetrical figure is now facing the viewer head-on, threateningly, its pincer-like arms, insect-like, frightening, grotesque. The figure is no longer recognizable as to gender or even species for that matter. There is an inherent sadness to this abject figure. Krauss writes, “whether or not the feminine subject is actually at stake in a given work, it is the character of being wounded, victimized, traumatized, marginalized, that is seen at play within this domain [of the abject].”6 Ramberg was refusing the role of the female as fetish object, while simultaneously fetishizing the textures of objects used to depict the female—hair and undergarments. Ramberg may have used this manipulation of clothing and hair usually associated with the feminine to subvert or hide the castrated woman’s body—the site of the “wound.”
Going beyond the psychoanalytic aspects of abjection in Ramberg’s work, Rina Arya describes the experience of abjection in practical terms as follows: “The experience of abjection both endangers and protects the individual: endangers in that it threatens the boundaries of the self and also reminds us of our animal origins, and protects us because we are able to expel the abject through various means.”7 In this sense, abjection is ambiguity. As the decade progressed, Ramberg appeared to continue to expel some of the earlier, sexualized interpretations of her work. Abjection does not cut off he subject from what threatens it. On the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.8 The figures continued to become more ambiguous, while still maintaining the use of clothing and other fetish objects in their construction. The figure in Wired is definitely an object, not an illusory representation of a human being. This is further exemplified by Ramberg’s treatment of the frame, which she exquisitely painted in a similar fashion to the painting. That immaculate surface (in this case, incuding the frame), is one of the hallmarks and determinants of the Chicago Imagist style.
Christina Ramberg, Hearing, 1981, Acrylic on masonite, 48” x 36”
In Hearing Ramberg uses multiple layers of androgynous clothing to clad her torso, like a seamstress gone mad. It appears to be birthing a smaller, breech, androgynously-clothed figure, again alluding to the maternal. The textured thigh-high “boot” on the right leg appears to be unraveling like a bandage, alluding to the inside/outside phenomenon of abjection. A desembodied ear-like pink jacket is attached to the right side of the torso, likely giving the piece its name. The torso in Hearing is asymmetrical and more colorful than the previous
torsos. Ramberg appeared to be exercising more freedom in this painting, incorporating a wire hanger and a wooden chair back. Although I did not want to delve into much biographical information in this case study, motherhood may have manifested itself more in Ramberg’s later paintings, like Hearing, and not just from a psychoanalytic perspective. Ramberg and fellow artist Philip Hanson’s son was born in 1976. She may have been conflicted by the hopes and fears of being a mother as well as the conflicted demands of art and motherhood. A black, urn-like vessel makes up the uterus/birth canal of the figure, where again Ramberg seemed to be exploring the connection between life (birth/sex) and death. Previous works had been categorized as corset-urns, and Hearing incorporates some of those former elements of the abject—birth meaning separation from the mother with the implied death of the attachment between mother-child but also the beginning of the ultimate death of the new life as well as the mother’s demise, as exemplified by the leaf-like urn.
We have seen that Ramberg used clothing in her paintings as indicators of gender or role. This conjures up the ancient idea, by Plato, of the myth in which humanity is described as having been originally created as a single, double-sexed being, a hermaphrodite, which is then separated into two halves (the sexes). In this context, love is defined as the pursuit of the whole. According to Elizabeth Grosz sexual difference is one of the three causes of horror/ revulsion/disgust that abjection encompasses, the other two being abjection towards food and bodily waste.9 Because of their proximity to orifices, objects in these categories draw attention to the body’s vulnerability of being turned inside out. Reflecting on her later torso paintings, Ramberg wrote: “What is wrong with these paintings? So removed. So distant....Theme of whole, breaking apart, coming together. The shifting of gender roles, the containing within each of us what are defined as masculine and feminine qualities...”10 Ramberg was likely ahead of her time in her thinking about and disrupting gender roles and the binary system.
Although Ramberg does not explicitly depict bodily waste or fluids in her torso paintings, she does allude to the abject in more subtle ways, like the fetish-veil outside vs. the detritus inside (the ambiguous Inside/Outside opposition), the I/Other opposition, fragmentation, the idea of the castrated woman/“wound,” and the idea of rejection of the mother. She also explores and explodes gender binary issues. Although ambiguous, Ramberg’s paintings are feminist in spirit and subversive, like the works of her contemporaries Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann. Her untimely death at the age of 49 and the fact that she was a woman have curtailed her recognition as a world-class artist, as women artists have not been recognized or collected to the extent that their male counterparts have been, even today. Her painstakingly meticulous degree of finish and clear form emphasizes the physical nature of objects. She transforms her torsos from subjects to objects, and they remain in that suspended, beautifully finished figure-fragment borderline state between subject and object, which is the hallmark of abjection.
1Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, 1-2.
2 Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Destiny of the Informe,” in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, 237.
3 Christina Ramberg quoted in Jenelle Porter, “Some Approaches for Exploring Collected Material,” Exhibition Catalog, Christina Ramberg. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, November 13, 2013 - March 2, 2014, 47.
4 Carol Becker, “Christina Ramberg in Retrospect,” Christina Ramberg—A Retrospective: 1968-1988 Exhibition Catalog. The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, March 6 - April 17, 1988, 22.
5 Ibid, 22.
6Rosaline E. Krauss, The Destiny of the Informe,” in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, 237.
7Rina Arya, “Abjection Interrogated: Uncovering The Relation Between Abjection and Disgust,” Journal of Extreme Anthropology 1, no. 1 (2017): 3, accessed September 23, 2019. http:// dx.doi.org/10.5617/jea.4337. .
9Elizabeth Grosz quoted in Rina Arya, “Abjection Interrogated: Uncovering The Relation Between Abjection and Disgust.” Journal of Extreme Anthropology 1, no. 1 (2017): 3, accessed September 23, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.5617/jea.4337.
10 Christina Ramberg, quoted in Donna Seaman, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, 333.
Arya, Rina. “Abjection Interrogated: Uncovering The Relation Between Abjection and Disgust.” Journal of Extreme Anthropology 1, no. 1 (2017): 0-18. Accessed September 23, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.5617/jea.4337.
Becker, Carol. “Christina Ramberg in Retrospect.” Christina Ramberg—A Retrospective: 1968-1988 Exhibition Catalog, 17-30. The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, March 6 - April 17, 1988.
Krauss, Rosalind E. “The Destiny of the Informe.” In Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss,Formless: A User’s Guide, 235-252. New York: Zone Books, 1997.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Porter, Jenelle. “Some Approaches for Exploring Collected Material.” Christina Ramberg. Exhibition Catalog, 39-59. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. November 13, 2013 - March 2, 2014.
Seaman, Donna. Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.