The artist Chuck Ramirez died in 2010 at age 48 in a cycling accident just a block from his San Antonio home. A decade later, Ramirez remains one of the city’s most beloved and acclaimed artists. His large scale, high production studio shots of everyday throwaways like empty candy trays, plastic bags, and his famous Whataburger cup make Ramirez a master of minimalist maximalism, and reveal his joyful but thoughtful take on life.
Ramirez came to art making in his early 30s, while still working as a packaging and graphic designer for HEB. After several years of designing exhibition invites for Blue Star Contemporary and artist friends, Ramirez opened his first solo exhibition in 1995: He presented household tchotchkes shrink-wrapped in HEB meat trays, and the show was a success. Later he would participate in an ArtPace artist residency, as well as exhibitions in Spain, Mexico, France and around the US.
Ramirez was largely self taught, so he considered his close friends his teachers and surrounded himself with artists. His parties at Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s store and art space Infinito Botánica, and later at his little wooden house on Stieren Street, introduced the San Antonio arts community to Ramirez’s gregarious personality, quirky aesthetics, generous hospitality, and sharp wit. Walley Films captured Ramirez’s vibrant art and life in their 2018 documentary Tía Chuck: A Portrait of Chuck Ramirez, which has recently been made available to view for free online.
The new exhibition “Chuck Ramirez: Metaphorical Portraits” commemorates 10 years since Ramirez’s death. I spoke with his gallerist and manager of his artistic estate Patricia Ruiz-Healy about her connection to Ramirez and about what keeps viewers coming back to his work time and time again.
Lauren Moya Ford: How did you first meet Chuck, and how did you become his gallerist?
Patricia Ruiz-Healy: When I opened my gallery Ruiz-Healy Art in 2006, so many people were telling me, “You should really take a look at Chuck’s work!” Chuck had worked with Finesilver Gallery for many years, but it had closed, so he was without representation at that time. And when I went to openings, I would of course run into Chuck: he was everywhere. Chuck and I finally did a studio visit in 2008, and we just hit it off. I was used to handling Latin American material — I represented artists like Graciela Iturbide and Pedro Friedeberg — because I’m from Mexico, so that was the material I felt comfortable with. Chuck was one of the first artists I represented from San Antonio.
LMF: What was that first studio visit like?
PRH: I was very taken by his “Brooms” (2007) series because it was so different, and I loved the concept of him honoring labor. He had gone to this remote area of Mexico along the Pacific Ocean called Careyes. While he was there, he saw the brooms. He brought all of them back to San Antonio to be photographed properly. I said to myself, “My gosh, this guy has so many different layers!” And after 10 years of working with his body of work, I just keep discovering things. It’s pretty amazing.
LMF: Is that your favorite series of his?
PRH: I have so many favorites. I love “Santos” (1996) because it represents his Anglo youth watching “The Brady Bunch.” I grew up in Mexico, but I used to watch that show, too, and I loved the concept of combining his Anglo upbringing with his Hispanic roots. In the piece, he hispanicized all of the names of the TV characters. One photo is titled Santa Marcia, for example. That’s a very important body of work. And “Candy Trays” (2002) is so seductive. “Godiva 3” (2002) is like an altar, or like a colonial church in Mexico or Spain with all this gold. You forget that it’s an empty Godiva tray. Well, I like too many!
LMF: How did you come to represent Chuck’s artistic estate?
PRH: In a way, it was kind of destiny. When Chuck died in 2010, I was working with him, but I didn’t know his family. Chuck’s family was not involved in his artistic life, so when he died, they talked to an artist friend of Chuck’s named Ethel Shipton and said, “What do we do with this artwork?” And Ethel told them, “You should go talk to Patricia.” And it has been the most amazing partnership with Trish Marcus, Chuck’s only sister.
LMF: Chuck grew up with his Anglo mother, but he also spent time with his paternal grandmother, who was Mexican American. What’s your view of his relationship to this part of his identity?
PRH: It was very complex. Chuck didn’t speak Spanish, nor did his father because his family had been in the States for many years. And remember, Hispanics used to be punished for speaking Spanish in public. But his grandmother Lydia Martinez was so proud of their heritage, and she used to speak Spanish. The grandmother became Chuck’s muse. She taught him how to cook, and maybe that’s where he got his incredible way of being such a generous host and doing these amazing dinners outside in the backyard, always with incredible decorations.
LMF: Chuck’s house is also full of treasures from Mexico, and he traveled in Mexico often.
PRH: He loved going to Mexico, and he spent so much time there. In fact, in 2005 Chuck had an important show in Mexico City curated by the art historian Víctor Zamudio-Taylor. And when I took his work to the ZONAMACO art fair in Mexico City for a solo show this February, the curator Cuahtemoc Medina came to me and said, “Thank you for bringing Chuck’s work! I haven’t seen it in a long time.” There were all these different curators there from all over the place who came to see Chuck’s photographs. And that’s the important thing for me as a gallerist: to keep his work out there.
LMF: In your 2017 interview with Ethel Shipton, she mentions that Chuck Ramirez kept an extensive set of art journals to develop his ideas. Can you tell me more about this?
PRH: Chuck was very good about putting his ideas down in writing. That’s something that really impressed me: he was very organized. When you met him, he was a super extrovert. And then when we started working together, he brought me this binder, and he said, This is where the editions are. So he gave me a lot of tools, so to speak. And then once he passed away and I started representing the estate and going through his archive, I saw that he used to keep checklists of all these details, like when he sold certain works and what was still available. So he had a very good mind in that sense.
LMF: How would you describe Chuck’s artistic process?
PRH: Chuck would photograph objects we don’t pay a lot of attention to, but which also have a lot of meaning in people’s lives. Many times he’d do this with a beautiful white background. But then in his “Seven Days” (2003-2004) series, the composition is so full that he didn’t leave any white in the background. So he would go to those extremes: very minimalist, and very maximalist. He was always paying attention to objects that are supposed to be discarded, but then he would surprise us.
LMF: What else would you like the world to know about Chuck and his work?
PRH: Well, I just think that he needs to be better known. I think his work belongs at the Whitney Museum of Art, MoMA, or Tate. In the span of only 15 years, from 1995 to 2010, Chuck created an amazing body of work. It’s a very short time. You have to be so careful about representing the estate of the artist. I did my masters thesis on Ana Mendieta, who became so recognized after her death, and I really do feel like Chuck should be that way, too. If Chuck had been in New York, he would have been 1,000 times better known by now. And that’s why I opened a gallery in New York. This is a way to connect with so many more curators and audiences.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Chuck Ramirez: Metaphorical Portraits” is on view at Ruiz-Healy Art in San Antonio through Jan. 9, 2021.