The art of Carol Rama occupies a strange and singular space; Rama, a self-confirmed outsider, is poised on a chosen cusp. Not a true outsider artist herself (her intense, self-conscious stoking of her own particular obsessive-compulsive neuroses precludes that) she provides a unique meta-vision — even a celebration — of the outsider mindset. She is a self-proclaimed insider of an outsider world, which she obsessively observes, reveling in recording its scatological and erotic impulses.
Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez were equally obsessed: it is fair to say that they all, including Rama, suffered from some degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder, just as does the uber-successful artist Yayoi Kusama. Louise Bourgeois once famously called her art “a form of therapy.” Or, as Rama put it, “We all have our own tropical disease within us, for which we seek a remedy. My remedy is painting.”
Self-taught, Rama channeled her understandable childhood demons — her mother was institutionalized when she was 12, and she visited the asylum on a daily basis; in 1942, when she was 24, her father, a successful factory owner, committed suicide after going bankrupt — into a lifelong odyssey, reflecting the disenfranchised, the insane, the deviant, the disabled, the deformed.
Rama intensely empathizes with their suffering. But unlike Frida Kahlo, who fetishized her own personal pain, transforming it into iconic art, she doesn’t do self-portraits. Rama remains the mesmerized observer, not the victimized subject.
Irresistibly drawn to her dark subject matter, Rama cultivated an aesthetic of disease, or as it can also be read, dis-ease. The line between creativity and madness famously overlaps: Think Vincent Van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, etc. Rama’s work treads the fine line with aplomb; she is pulled to the powerful magnet of myriad forms of madness, without completely succumbing to it herself.
Living in Italy under Fascism, Rama created art that was deliberately shocking and radical, and remains so today. “I was seeking to improve the body, and give joy and meaning also to those that are deformed. In the debased, diseased bodies, I was looking for a spark, a flash of vitality, a desire, even obscene, to exist. Are you living in hell? Well, try to make the most of it, even there….”
Rama’s incipient career suffered a major setback when a show of her early watercolors was mounted at the Galleria Faber in Turin in 1945. The exhibit, considered obscene, was instantly censored, and closed before it even opened. In response, Rama abandoned figurative work for several decades, moving instead into abstraction, first with geometrical paintings. Over time her art gradually accrued dense layers of unusual materials, from grains of rice to prosthetic eyeballs to fur skins. All her work–even her sculptural series incorporating bicycle inner tubes–insistently projects the visceral sexuality of disembodied and diseased anatomies, a subject that never ceased to fascinate her.
In 1979, Rama’s early watercolors were shown for the first time. 1980 marked a return to that first love and she produced a number of similarly erotic watercolors and pen drawings that hark back to her roots. Rather than using blank paper or canvas, she began to paint on printed backgrounds, such as architectural plans, adding another layer to her work. She continued with figuration until her death in 2015, at 97. Her strongest work appears in these two periods of early and late-career figurative art that bracket her career, her images often as delicate and they are deeply disturbing.
Her earliest work from the 1930s is of disembodied limbs and prosthetics, and women with lolling tongues and exposed genitals. She soon introduces a potent female figure–a bare-breasted woman crowned with a laurel of thorny, thrusting plants–in a series called Appassionata, seemingly partly based on her mother, Marta, (also shown in a raunchy piece called Marta and the Rent Boys (1939). We see this figure in a series of images: standing, almost shyly; strapped to a hospital bed, with shoes and prosthetics strung above her like a children’s mobile; enthroned in a wheel chair with enormous double or triple wheels. She is also shown, from the back, defecating, (Marta, 1940) and later, lying in a hospital bed, limbless. (Appassionata, 1941.)
Another series features a woman whose hair bristles with leaves. Dorina, (1940, 1942, and 1944) shown with her tongue wagging and a black serpent emerging from or entering various orifices. Shoes, prosthetics and animals (or their skins) are featured as supporting characters in many works and also on their own.
Her geometric work soon evolved into her bricolages of the 1960s, which featured mixed media: such materials as tar, seeds, wire, and animal claws. Her collages of the 1970s, using rubber and bicycle inner tubes, and later fabric, is uniformly strong, and somewhat reminiscent of Bourgeois.
In 1980, with her return to figurative work, her subjects took on a mythological layer. In Senza Titolo, (Angelo, Donna, Toro,) 1983, for instance, she depicts an angel-woman on a bull; in Annunciazione, 1985, a woman, her tongue out, is shown flying through space, bulls in the background behind her. The show ends on a high note: an elegant series of etchings done in the late 90s, all of them, of course, explicitly sexual.
“I paint first and foremost to cure myself,” Rama said. In doing so, she created a unique body of work, as resonant, in its way, as that of Egon Schiele or even Basquiat; two other artists memorably obsessed with anatomy.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).