The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Bony Ramirez

Gabrielle Bruney
Dec 1, 2021 1:00PM

When he was 13, the artist Bony Ramirez’s family informed him that they were taking a vacation to the United States from their home in the Dominican Republic. “I was told that we were just coming for two weeks, to visit Disney World, and we were going to come back,” he said. “We never went to Disney World, and we’ve never been back.”

Today, at 25 years old, Ramirez’s art career is on the rise. But the departure from his home country looms over his mixed-media paintings, which often feature dreamily distorted, life-sized depictions of imagined figures from the Dominican Republic and its colonial past. In his portraits, elongated limbs curve and twist, forming figures of startling depth and plausibility despite their impossible proportions. He sets his subjects against idyllic, tropical backgrounds often featuring fruits, flowers, or clear blue skies—and sometimes punctuated by startling violence, such as real-life switchblades thrust into the canvas.


Together, the works memorialize and yearn for a long-departed home. “That’s [...] part of my practice,” Ramirez said. “How do I reconnect with the things that I’ve lost by coming to the United States?”

Ramirez began making art before he departed from Tenares, Salcedo, his small hometown which he described as being “not ‘horses and cows’ country,” but where the streets were unpaved. Raised in a family that attended church every day, Catholic art was among Ramirez’s earliest influences, and as a child, he crafted copies of religious works and distributed them to fellow churchgoers.

Once in the U.S., his family settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. But although he graduated from high school with a perfect GPA, Ramirez couldn’t afford to attend college. “I saw my mother working all the time, and I’m like, ‘I have to make this work,’” he said. So he began working in construction with an uncle, and when he was off on Sundays, he made art.

The physical distortions that present in nearly all of Ramirez’s portraits—spiraling arms and legs, elongated and gelatinous fingers and toes—were born of his desire to lean into a trait that had once seemed a shortcoming. “As a self-taught artist, I was never good at proportion,” he said. “I knew that I had to do something to embrace that part of myself.” He found inspiration in exaggerated anatomy of Italian Mannerist paintings as well as modern works by Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso. “I saw their work and I was like, ‘Okay I can do that too,’” Ramirez said.

His signature collage technique, which involves painting and illustrating figures in acrylics, colored pencils, and oil pastels on paper before gluing them to painted wood panel backdrops, was also born of necessity. Initially unable to afford blank canvases, he scoured thrift stores for affordable paintings, gessoed them, and painted on top of the older works. But the process left the surfaces of the canvases too textured and uneven to smoothly render his lush figures, with all their swooping curvatures. So he created them on paper and glued them to the canvas—that technique became the vehicle that has given his work much of its dimensionality and depth.


After finding little success submitting his artworks to open calls, Ramirez had his professional breakthrough unexpectedly last year, when Thierry Goldberg Gallery, which now represents him, invited him to do an online show in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They reached out to me like, ‘I love what I see in your [Instagram] feed. Is anything available?’ he explained. “I’m like, ‘Everything is available. I’ve never sold anything.’”

The resulting online show, April 2020’s “Grass Under the Wood,” was followed by an in-person show months later. The latter, titled “MUSA X PARADISIACA,” opened just after the 2020 presidential election. Amid both a pandemic and political unrest, Ramirez was worried that no one would come—or worse, that the gallery could become the target of angry mobs. But President Joe Biden secured the presidency on November 7th, the day of the opening, and jubilant New Yorkers filled the streets, and the gallery’s pandemic-limited capacity as well.

The show solidified Ramirez’s status as an art-world rarity: a self-taught artist without early professional connections. “People ask me, ‘Oh, you’re going to Yale, or Columbia?’” Ramirez said. “I’m like, ‘No, I went to Perth Amboy High School.”

The mixed-media paintings of his first shows feature the religious and colonial themes that recur across his work. Feeding a Child of the Ocean (2020) is a Caribbean-inflected Madonna and child, in which a durag-clad figure holds an infant as it nurses from a conch shell, while five of the works in “MUSA X PARADISIACA” recount the history of the Dominican Republic. In “No Fue El Final/It Was Not The End” (2021)” a white woman in 19th-century dress falls backwards, eyes wide in shock, as blood spurts from a gash in her neck—a presumed casualty of an anti-colonial uprising.

Other works incorporate sculptural elements. Sword fragments protrude from the panels of pieces like Peel? Los Plátanos No Se Pelan Solos (2020), infusing the otherwise serene portrait with menace. Stand-alone sculptures of doll-like children are also a fixture in his shows. Ramirez calls them “Caribabies”—Caribbean babies—and their presence adds touches of whimsy to his often heady offerings.

However, despite the artist’s love for the Dominican Republic, he is not sure when he might return. Ramirez is queer—something he openly discusses in interviews but his family does not know—and he says that returning to the region could mean facing its homophobia. If he does go back, he might travel like a tourist, and stay in a resort, rather than return to his hometown.

“I’m not ready for that mental exhaustion that I would have if I go back to the city where I was born, because people [remember] me a certain way,” he said. “So, if I go back as an adult, they’re just going to go, ‘Oh, this is the same gay kid that used to be around here.’”

Ramirez says his passion for the Caribbean has always been “a tricky thing” in his art. “It’s like, ‘Oh, Dominican! Woo hoo! We’re here,’ representing the best I can. But I know that I’m not the type of person that they would want to be represented by.”

But the home country that is out of reach for now is brought to life in his work. In the Dominican Republic, Ramirez’s family owned a colmado—a bodega-like general store. It was attached to their home, and from the living room, he could alert his father to a customer’s arrival. The shop has now been shuttered and remodeled, and the family owns no pictures of it, but Ramirez has incorporated the shop into his paintings. The Last Day, Ultimo Día En El Campo (2021) depicts the entrance to the store, with its front gate collaged onto the painting in pastel pink wood. In Es Colmado, No Bodega (2020), meanwhile, a red-clad woman counts change on the store’s counter.

“I literally just recreated my childhood home because we don't have any other way of regaining that,” Ramirez said. “I’m so big now at documenting what I go through because we didn’t have that chance.”

Ramirez’s ability to reclaim through art what might otherwise have been lost to him is one reason he has such strong faith in his practice. “One thing I’ve always said to myself is, ‘I believe in my work more than I believe in myself as a person,” he explained. While he was still working construction, Ramirez said he told himself, “‘Okay, I’m a little shy. I’m a little weird. I have nothing in my life, but I know the work is good [...] That’s going to get me where it needs to get me.’”

The Artsy Vanguard 2021

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.

Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2021 and collect works by the artists.

Gabrielle Bruney

Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Bony Ramirez by Frenel Morris. Courtesy of Bony Ramirez.