Christina Ramberg, 1973. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
Her father’s military career took Christina Ramberg and her family to live briefly in Japan and Germany, as well as Kansas and Virginia, before settling in Highland Park, IL, an hour north of Chicago. Ramberg completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1968 and 1973 respectively. SAIC was Ramberg’s home for the rest of her career; she became a faculty member and eventually the chair of SAIC’s Drawing and Painting Department. Concurrently, she became an avid collector of objects she found intriguing, notably amassing a collection of 350 dolls that she displayed on the walls of her apartment. She also kept scrapbooks in which she collected an inventory of images, including comic book panels and gruesome medical illustrations.
A sale of six-inch-square panels of Masonite in the campus supply store where Ramberg worked as a student created a productive entry point. The modestly sized Masonite squares inspired her to paint a series of paintings focused on hair textures and presented like assorted chocolates. Around the time she completed her bachelor’s degree, Ramberg was included in the False Image group exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center along with her fellow SAIC graduates Roger Brown, Philip Hanson, and Eleanor Dube.
Though she continued to paint on Masonite, Ramberg’s works began to grow in scale. In the early 1970s, her paintings featured closely cropped images of women in luxuriously detailed lingerie. Within a few years, her figures became increasingly fragmented, only defined by wrappings expressing a hair-like texture. The precision of her paintings was supported by extensive preparatory studies; these studies themselves have since been recognized as significant works.
Of her lingerie renderings, Ramberg said: “One thing I’ve always been interested in about clothing is that it can talk a lot about the body. Whether about the outside or the inside, too.” At the time of her first exhibitions, Ramberg’s anonymous figures were read as fetishistic studies of the female body, but by the time of her retrospective at the Renaissance Society, in 1988, critics interpreted her body of work as studies in objectification and the artifice of modern beauty culture.
Well known for her height and her warmth, Ramberg often joked about her inability to find clothes and shoes that fit her form. She became a nimble seamstress as well as a dedicated quilter. In the early 1980s, Ramberg stepped away from painting and immersed herself in quilting. The medium allowed her the opportunity to contemplate complex ideas outside the realm of paint. Perhaps it was the structured geometry of quilting, as well as the electrical grid towers seen in cross-country travels by car, that inspired her “satellite paintings” of the mid-1980s, which depicted grid structures on a scumbled black background. This would be Ramberg’s final experimentation with form before her death in 1995, and demonstrates a truncated turn into new territory.
Vertical Amnesia (1969–70)
acrylic on Masonite
Like many of the Chicago Imagists, Christina Ramberg was a collector. She collected everything from medical illustrations and paper dolls to comic book clippings. She also collected and cataloged illustrations and quotations from library books, which she then meticulously copied into her sketchbooks. Arranged and divided by a date from an inked rubber stamp, her collections of hand-drawn illustrations included knots, origami, baskets, textile patterns, and techniques for folding drapery. These observed patterns and textures would eventually become her painting palette.
Starting in the late ‘70s, Ramberg overlaid these observed patterns onto disparate forms to render a series of bodies painted only from the neck down to the mid-thigh. In Vertical Amnesia (1980), a relatively androgynous body is cobbled together to form a whole and floats in an uninhabited space: a lavender striped sleeve tucks itself under a torso comprised of smooth, sinewy patches of peach and dark green; blue window-pane fabric alongside draped layers of dark red fabric comprise the abdomen and groin; and a small origami cube rests on the right hip. All of these components are darkly outlined as if cut and assembled from the pages of a comic book or a sewing pattern.
In a June 5, 1979, sketchbook entry Ramberg wrote: “I want to pt. [paint] empty garments but not copy specific style. Encorporate (sic) other things – natural forms. Asymmetry is want of coordination of interrelated parts.” In Vertical Amnesia, the armature for the figure’s right arm and leg is constructed from hair that mimics woodgrain and also resembles a broken chair. A red shirt, sleeves neatly folded inward, is nestled inside the pink muscles of the chest as if surgically retracted or enclosed in a gift box. The same red shirt appears in her sketchbook on November 19, 1980, as “folded sleeves” in a set of numbered drawings of her imagined, amalgamated pieces of clothing, objects, and patterns.
Ramberg’s conflation of skin, fabric, wood, paper, and muscle is perhaps a testament to the ephemeral nature of the body: everything is created from matter, molecules, and cells. The concept of the body as merely an assemblage of cells allowed Ramberg to dissect, merge, and stitch her figures together from the multitude of patterns she discovered between the pages of books and the world around her.