If Tom Burr recalls his childhood with detached aplomb, and Brandi Twilley recalls her childhood with intimate reconstructions, Carol Rama recalls her childhood with unabashed honesty. Rama’s large retrospective now hangs at the New Museum; it’s sweeping, and also deeply challenging. Rama’s work challenges the viewer both because her art is so sexually explicit and because Rama always clarifies its relationship to her own psychosexual desires, and her own childhood trauma. It’s her frankness, more than anything, that bowls one over.

As a young girl in Turin Rama frequented a local psychiatric hospital. This proved a formative experience—indeed it seems to have helped her understand her own sexuality, even her body. Rama’s plentiful paintings and drawings of patients are reduced to a single type: a proud, sibyllic woman with a reptilian tongue, often without limbs, and almost always engaged in some deeply erotic and androgynous sexual play. Multi-phallic groins emerge from mysterious bodies. Slithering tongues seek out flesh, while live snakes are played with, inserted, or teased. Rama’s image of a limbless woman hissing and slithering at the viewer is particularly haunting; the torso’s fetishized, red high-heels stand below the bed, waiting for feet that will never return.

Most reviewers can’t help but focus on the profoundly original sexuality that Rama articulates; this is certainly fascinating. But for me, this betokens something else. Reading Rama’s writings, which appear throughout the show, I was struck by her almost pathological candor. And that, I think, speaks to this exhibition’s true, gut-punching power. Honesty. Rama’s work embodies a kind of honestly that is increasingly rare. What’s more is that the work is not just smart, but far from opaque. Rama is not coy about her motivations. Some artists just understand precisely what they are doing and can articulate that very well. I am thinking here of someone like Paul Klee, who seemed to describe his own practice so perfectly that it almost collapsed the space for meaningful criticism. Rama is similarly virtuosic in her self-awareness, but she applies this virtuosity to deeply personal subject matter. Who would have thought that honestly could be so hard to look at?

They say that the truth hurts. But Rama doesn’t aim to hurt—she’s felt enough pain for us all. Her works do challenge, however, and they challenge because they are so frank, so clear, and so shamelessly exposed.

Four on the Floor #1

Tom Burr | Brandi Twilley | Carol Rama | Kwakwaka’wakw

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