Q+A: Sofie Ramos

San Francisco-based artist Sofie Ramos creates fantastical installations that suggest a painting expanding into space, often engulfing the viewer, fluctuating between playful magic and underlying darkness. Frank Smigiel, Director of Arts Programming & Partnerships at FMCAC, sat down with Ramos for a conversation about her multifaceted work and creative trajectory.

Frank Smigiel (FS): Tell us a little bit about your background with traditional painting.

Sofie Ramos (SR): I studied painting at a university (as opposed to an art school), but there was this one class in undergrad which kind of changed my trajectory. It was a themed undergrad painting class called “Accessorising Painting” with the great Wendy Edwards at Brown. The idea was to connect painting to some other area of interest that would then transform the process or product of a traditional painting. I chose interior design, which I had also been getting into as a college student with a space of my own to decorate freely for the first time, my dorm room. I was always thinking about where paintings belonged or lived after you made them, and the idea of galleries and museums and all these institutional art spaces were not a huge part of my experience at the time. I thought of paintings as belonging in homes and as a possible element of interior decoration. I started arranging paintings along with other objects in my studio and thinking of the space around them and combining them with the space in different ways.

FS: Before that class, what would your paintings typically look like?

SR: I was really into this staining technique with liquid oil paint on raw canvas that would soak through to the back and then I would take the canvas off the stretcher, reverse it and reattach it to the stretcher, showing the back kind of accidental composition as the finished painting. I was clearly starting to get interested in a painting as an entire object and the materiality of the paint itself. I was only using oil paint because that’s what we were learning in painting class, so I will probably never go back to this technique again, though my friends in undergrad loved them and bought them all. Not sure how long those last, though. They are definitely not archival.

FS: And is it paint itself that’s really interesting to you as a material?

SR: Paint as material is very important; house paint in particular. I’m interested in how paint can transform objects, not necessarily in creating an image with paint, but bringing out a texture or combining surfaces and things like that. I think of it almost as kind of a sculptural material … also a way to clean things, to cover up histories and memories—this idea of repainting something over and over again to give it a fresh look or feel, a new face.

FS: It sounds like thinking about paint as an architect or a sculptor; not for the image it can make but for the kind of environment or field. I just think about those… how do I even describe them? What are those knobs that are on the fencing structure?

SR: They’re cotton balls dipped in latex house paint. I think of paint as a way to fossilize things; it’s not turning into rock but it is turning into plastic—latex paint is plastic. Especially soft materials will soak it up and turn it into something else entirely.

FS: You’re talking about the way paint at some level erases and makes a room brand new and at the same time that it fossilizes and holds a position that’s kind of back and forth. You see it all across your work: erasing, holding and accumulating.

SR: I don’t know that erasing happens so much but definitely covering up, which is another great thing about paint, the layers that existed before are still there so there is a tangible history that is built through all these layers.

FS: Talk about the everyday objects in the work.

SR: Well I’m really interested in these domestic objects or objects from the home as opposed to formal shapes. I don’t want to get lost in abstraction necessarily. I would like there to be some sort of familiarity in the objects and a connection to people; myself and the audience. So I try to use found objects as much as possible, though I usually alter them to some degree. I’ve collected many household objects—I love tables and chairs, I have a couch now, mattresses, blinds and lamps—and a lot of them will travel from installation to installation. Sometimes I refer to them as “imaginary friends” or as my cast of characters that come with me to whatever site I’m installing in and I build up the space around them.

But they also can do their own thing. I’m more of a facilitator sometimes than an all-knowing God figure that can place everything and know how everything goes. Sometimes I feel like the work makes itself and the objects evolve from space to space. They can interact with each other and the space in ways that can alter them and their surroundings.

With this project I’m  getting more interested in story telling or at least developing my individual characters. I was getting into this with Chris [Wood] when we were trying to decide on the sounds, we were discussing that maybe the stairs and the pink ottoman are kind of fighting with each other because they are both a little bit aggressive in their sounds and maybe the breathing subwoofer coffee table is kind of the mother of everything, calming everything down but also getting angry with everyone, and then the tube scarf and the green ottoman are kind of consoling each other but also bickering a little bit. The collaboration between sound and performance are really key for introducing outside narratives into my spaces, which I think is becoming very important. I haven’t thought of that so much in the past because it’s kind of an alternative world, but what happens when something else comes in from the outside? Does it start to influence what’s going on in the space or change to the mood of the sculptures? I’m very interested in how these outside elements can start to interfere with and activate my spaces.

FS: Could you talk about the guardhouse? Do you start an installation with an “imaginary friend” and grow it out from the sculpture, or do you start with a series of marks and then find who’s going to fit into the environment? I mean there’s so many layers but you don’t seem to come with a set drawing.

SR: I sometimes try to make plans for an installation but I really prefer to be in the space and work improvisationally. I don’t necessarily start with all the objects, but a few of them have these paths attached to them, so paths have been emerging as a theme for a while now. The paths will mark out the space, or lead me and the objects through a space, but then also expand the space. So once there’s two or three paths going—usually attached to my stairs or a slide or a plank of wood and extended throughout the space—then I populate that part of the installation with more objects which will then also get painted into the space in some way and act to kind of dictate the composition through this process of meandering and building up.

FS: What you’re calling paths, the kind of very big lines in the work, I don’t think I’d realize that they were in many ways the generator. At some level you can think “oh they connect things that are already there” but they’re actually setting out the terrain.

SR: It’s kind of like a board game; setting out or creating some kind of parameter to go from.

FS: So does that mean that at least for right now, you wouldn’t think of these installations as things you repeat?

SR: I think people are aware that that’s not how it works, but at the same time I would definitely be interested in taking all of those elements to a different space and recreating a new installation out of them. Some of them are more connected to past installations than others. Everything changes in a different space so it’s always fun to see how something can translate or transform. I think that’s most of the process anyway—taking all the same stuff to a new site and seeing what happens.

FS: How much did the space change your way of working? The guardhouse is so unusual: it’s a small interior and people can only see it through the windows. Was this the first time you had to work with four walls, a contained space?

SR: It’s one of just a few times I’ve had four walls, although I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it that way because it still seems kind of, I hate the word “set”, but like a stage set because of the orientation of the windows. There is a front and there is a place where the audience is supposed to stand. It’s obviously a different experience when you walk inside. I am kind of sad that people can’t go inside because it’s more fun when the door is opened. And it’s fun to have the windows open too. If the windows are open, you can actually peek your head in.

FS: What did you learn from doing the big piece on the fence?

SR: I approached it kind of like I would in an empty room. I’ve painted a similar pattern to that on the walls before and the walls that I work on don’t always have a ceiling so sometimes I am able to put something like the line of triangles on top, so it’s a familiar composition but not on quite this big of a scale. That’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever made and I love it because it’s like an inversion of my spaces. I would love to play with that idea some more. I want to further connect it to the guardhouse and start populating it as a space; it is plywood and you can drill things into it. I don’t know if sculptures are allowed outside but I think it’s very interesting to have an inverted environment… I would love for it to keep evolving. I have also thought about the idea of streamers or something coming over the edges so it looks like something is inside, which everyone is always very curious about with this weird impenetrable structure.

FS: Younger kids are constantly looking for the door.

SR: Yeah, adults too. They’re like, “How do we get inside, what’s inside?” I’m like, “It’s an electric transformer.”

FS: One of the things about the fact that you can’t get inside either of them is that physical limit. You always have a built-in tension in the work. You work in a color palette that could be described as exuberant or fun, playful, but when you were talking about the guardhouse specifically, you are also talking about feelings of claustrophobia. One of the guys down in Goody cafe described the fencing as “the most menacing bouncy castle” he’d ever seen. So it’s not just a fun color wheel or with pathways, it’s got other darker or complicated or anxious edges to it.

SR: I am always trying to push it to be more complicated or complex, that’s definitely a goal.

FS: Do you set out to think you need to put something oppositional, scary and dangerous into it?

SR: I definitely love color and I want to make art that is fun, but at the same time I don’t want to get stuck in that superficial realm. I started amping up my color choices and really saturating my spaces towards the end of grad school, and the audience reaction to it became a little upsetting when it was just all about the fun, playful aspects, but then there were always people picking up on an underlying anxiety in the work. It can be very meticulous, and these straight lines that I’m making are kind of shaky and it’s not always fun to make it. It’s a little bit of a painful process sometimes and that has to do with being a perfectionist and all of these things that I’m trying to get away from. I talk a lot about the nearness and instability of formal and psychological oppositions, when oppositions co-exist at once or easily tip from one to the other; when it’s both super playful and kind of scary at the same time or pleasurable but also slightly nauseating.

FS: You don’t mind when people describe the work as an exploded painting?

SR: No, I love that. That’s how I always thought of it—as painting in space—and I think that’s how the whole practice was born but also it is also about the paint itself; I don’t know that it exploded exactly, but it started growing and expanding out of the frame, onto the space and then changing the space entirely.

FS: I read that one of your dream projects would be to have a whole house you could modulate.

SR: Yeah that’s still a dream, only to put it out there. Although I feel like the guardhouse was my first little house because it is its own structure, so I’ve been referring to it as my home. It’s a little too small with just one room but I would love that as a project.

FS: I love artists who make sculptures that they also use as a set or prop. I guess I wasn’t thinking about your work that way, and I was really surprised when you said the dancers were going to take the sculptures and move them out. You’re not afraid to let the sculptures kind of literally go out and then come back.

SR: Well this is a very new development, actually. I have previously had a lot of anxiety about anyone touching my shit and messing stuff up because it happens so much in my installations and galleries where people are like “I’m going to climb on these stairs” and then they break, or like “I’m going to sit on this spiky stool” or something. Obviously you’re not supposed to sit on that. I think it’s a really freeing experience to start thinking of sculptures as props. I would prefer them to be both. Because I’m constantly reusing them myself and repainting them, I have learned that they’re not so precious. You can always just paint over that scuff mark and then it’s gone and it’s like brand new.

FS: It was interesting in Rachael Cleveland’s piece [Moving In] and the way the performers were so focused on the sculptural objects that the movement kind of became object-like and became about those objects. It didn’t feel to me like those performers were just gratuitously using the objects, it felt very much controlled by the logic of the installation.

SR: They were very respectful of all the things. We had many conversations about it but they understood that the objects are characters on their own and treated them like that. The objects have personalities but also the people were becoming more like the objects and there was this weird hybrid interaction that was happening which I loved, so I think that I will continue to push the objects into these maybe more uncomfortable situations and see what they’re capable of.

FS: I wanted to talk about density. There are some pieces that have more air or more space and have a kind of central image and just one or two elements. Is it something that you increase over time, modulating back and forth between things that are more open, and things that are very knotted together?

SR: My work did grow in its layering and accumulation in my more formative years, especially in grad school where I pushed the saturation to its limits in my thesis project, which was a video called decorate/defecate. Now I feel like I can alternate pretty freely between more open and more dense fields depending on the context and the scope of the project. I think of the pieces you’re referring to as individual artworks as opposed to my installations, which are composed of many individual pieces, though the idea is that you can’t tell where any piece begins or ends. The major difference for me in my variable presentation methods is more of an autonomous work that maybe someone could own verses an environment where all of these things come together.

FS: What’s also interesting for me about the Fort Mason piece, particularly with the fence, is just how much it’s influencing the campus. It’s extending its own kind of gravitational pull. It’s interesting to see it not contained in a gallery space but out in the world.

SR: Yeah, I’m definitely into the work out in the world. I will obviously always return to the comfort of the interior setting, but galleries are really not ideal anyway. I think next I need to make an entire structure, where both outside and inside are integrated into a total work of art. I guess it’s similar to moving beyond the confines of the painting frame, to move outside the walls of the space.

FS: I know you have qualms about art work that’s interactive but I think you mentioned somewhere that you’d love to do a playground.

SR: Yes, I’m down for the playground project if I can work with some people to make it sturdy enough to play on. But more interesting than a playground for kids would be one for adults that’s like an obstacle course or a death trap, it would be fun if there could be more than just the play aspect to it. Things that could fall on you or a big pool of painted cotton balls … yeah, I would hope that in the future projects can expand to be on that scale.