Crucial Basement Projects Inhabits the Lower Level of the Santora Arts Building in Santa Ana

Courtesy Basement Productions

“I don’t have time to go to LA,” admits Christian Ramirez, by way of explaining that curating is a “selfish” art. “Managing a gallery, I can curate shows for the work I want to see here in Santa Ana.”

Ramirez is speaking about Basement Projects, the gallery he runs in the lower level of the Santora Arts Building, though he doesn’t use that word to describe it. To him, it’s a “space for projects”—sometimes visual, sometimes performance. He leaves it open to whatever seems right at the time.

Clicking on the “new work” link of at www.christianramirezstudio.com leads to a dark self-portrait, Ramirez’s eyes resembling two chunks of coal resting in the sockets of his bearded face, and knife fight, with its two brown arms locked in a swastika of blades and leather gloves. Go to his blog or the “BASEMENT PROJECTS” link, and the scope of what’s been done over the past 14 months is pretty impressive. He has hosted 13 events, including music, zines, pop-ups, sculpture, solo and group shows, but here’s the impressive part: 47 women artists have taken part, as opposed to 43 men, with a third of the artists people of color.

Subsidized by his full-time job as the Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) associate director of admissions, he’s not getting rich running the space. “Making money is something in the future,” he tells me, nonchalantly. Any remuneration he receives is from doing the work to highlight the artists he sees on studio visits, as well as the chance to expose newly established LCAD students after they’ve graduated.

Courtesy of Basement Productions

I’m meeting with Ramirez and his colleague Vonn Sumner a week before the hang of their show “The Trash Can School,” and the space is still empty. It’s just concrete floors and clean white surfaces, their words ping-ponging against the walls as they speak.

A professor of painting at Fullerton College, Sumner was invited by Ramirez to curate a show. With limited experience, Sumner gave the idea some thought, then agreed because artists make better curators.

I toss out the idea that I don’t know how true that is, since artists routinely don’t know how to talk about their own work, and a curator’s job is to basically, well, talk about the work they’re curating. “You’re a curator now,” says Ramirez.

“No, I’m a painter . . . and a curator,” argues Sumner.

Ramirez doesn’t give up: “Okay. A curator with a small ‘c’!”

Courtesy of Basement Productions

He worked as an assistant to artist Wayne Thiebaud, whom he considers a mentor, as well as a kindred spirit in the light touch he takes with his paintings. (Based on his website, Sumner’s work is primarily figurative, many of the images parodic self-portraits. Filled with props such as odd hats, masks and even cigarettes, they resemble a commedia dell’arte with brushstrokes and are right at home with the whimsy of Thiebaud’s gumball machines and clown-faced ice cream cones.) “[He’s] a great example of someone teaching, not just picking up a paycheck,” Sumner says. “Wayne is one of those people that cares about the subject, the student, the process.”

Sumner and Ramirez finally settle on a description of themselves as “working artists”: people that work a day gig, but still have a studio practice.

Sumner took his inspiration for “The Trash Can School” from the Ashcan School movement of a century prior. The artists from that group focused on social issues and the working class, and they had a strong affinity for the disenfranchised, primarily immigrants, a subject close to Ramirez’s heart. It also played well with Sumner’s fascination with garbage bins: “I like their beat-up patina.” Nineteen artists, including local favorites Averi Endow, LG Williams and Thiebaud, were invited to participate and given free rein to paint what they wanted, just so long as it included a trashcan. “Some people took that more literally than others,” he says.

Courtesy of Basement Productions

The can is more than just Sumner’s obsession; it’s a symbol of conspicuous consumption, what happens at the end of a process in which we buy and accumulate, then have to eliminate what we’ve gathered around us . . . or have it taken away from us. Ramirez reminds us of the recent reports from Credit Suisse that the 1 percent of the world’s super-rich now have half of the world’s money, a rise of 7 percent since the 2008 market crash. That subject—money-making or the lack of it—rears its head again, as is often the case when talking with creatives, even when it’s someone as established as Sumner, who has a pretty full career as an exhibiting artist. “You do it for the love of the thing, and I love artists,” he says. “It’s like food—make it with love, [and] it’s going to taste better. [Do it, and] my faith is that some of that will show up.”

“The Trash Can School” at Basement Projects, 207 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.basementprojectsdtsa.com. For more information or to view the show by appointment, contact info@basementprojectsdtsa.com. Through Feb. 24. Free.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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