Frank Dorrey and Brayan Ramales Built the World Inside a Chinatown Mall
Somewhere in Chinatown, buried beneath the jumbled trinket shops of an Elizabeth Street mall, lies an oasis. Stepping into Freedom Love at WHAAM! is like entering a fever dream of distorted memories thanks to Frank Dorrey and Brayan Ramales, who filled the compact gallery with airbrushed paintings, digital collages, and unsent love letters for their dual exhibition. And while the two artists may work in entirely different modes, there’s a strange, moving coherence to the chaos. “Maybe our conversations as friends helped it translate,” Ramales said on Zoom last week. “They’re similar trains of thought, put out by two people who make very different work.” Shortly after the opening of Freedom Love, on view until the 17th, the dynamic duo joined us to talk deep introspection, cartoon universes, and occupational hazards.
JULIAN RIBEIRO: Congratulations on the show, it looks so cool.
FRANK DORREY: Thank you so much.
RIBEIRO: I was a fan of both of your stuff through Instagram, so I’m happy you came together at WHAAM! What informed your decision to make this a two-person show?
DORREY: I just love my bestie and he’s a great artist. We had to do something.
BRAYAN RAMALES: It’s going to sound funny, but we manifested it.
RIBEIRO: That space is really cute, too. I like that it’s just a room in a mall.
DORREY: Yeah, it is a beautiful space.
RIBEIRO: When I look at the work together, even though you have different mediums and styles, it’s cohesive and they all feel like friends. Do you think that there’s a conversation happening?
DORREY: Yeah. We hadn’t planned it that way, but they automatically play off each other.
RAMALES: I hadn’t seen the work, so when I first saw it installed, I was like, “Whoa.” I surprised myself. Without knowing, they speak to each other so well. Maybe our conversations as friends helped it translate. They’re similar trains of thought, put out by two people who make very different work.
RIBEIRO: Tell me more about the difference between your artistic processes. Brayan, what is the drive? What is the perspective that you’re coming from?
RAMALES: I feel like with this show, I was a lot more zoned into a theme, which is not usually how I make work. But for every piece, I was trying to access a memory. All the love letters in the show are directly related to things in my life or a close person’s life. I would sit and journal about it like, “What is the essence of this memory and how can I access or even let go of it through this?” I wasn’t thinking of a viewer, it was an emotional exercise.
DORREY: That’s beautiful, and it’s the same way I was feeling. I was just introspecting and letting go of whatever’s burdening me and exploring whatever gives me life. Art does that for me. I was just trying to have peace.
RIBEIRO: I’m happy you touched on the journaling, Brayan, because I was really into the one piece with the nine pages framed. A personal favorite was the Moomin with the gun that said, “I’ll always protect you.” It’s so adorable. A lot of your work in the show was about connection.
RAMALES: Totally. I’ve been watching a lot of Sopranos, and I drew that one right after I watched the Sopranos episode where this character wants to protect his family but doesn’t know how. My family’s from Mexico and my grandpa was shot and my great-grandpa was shot. It just made me think of how we love people in the way we know how. It’s not supposed to be that intense. When I saw Sopranos, I was like, “Oh, shit, this is all he knows.” It’s not only about connections, but our own limitations, especially pertaining to love. And not just romantic love. There’s a letter in there to a friend.
RIBEIRO: Familial love. I also really love the Pete Jr. with the New York jersey that says, “Fat Boy Season.”
RAMALES: Wait, that’s his name? I didn’t even know that. It’s the big guy from the group.
RIBEIRO: Yeah, because his dad is Pete. Sr.
RAMALES: That’s crazy.
RIBEIRO: Not to expose myself as knowing too much about the Disney animated universe.
RAMALES: The Goofy-verse.
RIBEIRO: [Laughs] How long have you been airbrushing?
RAMALES: On and off for four years, but I tried to do it more in 2023.
RIBEIRO: I airbrushed for a long time and I feel like I’ve given myself permanent lung damage from not wearing the mask, so I’m always curious to know how long people have done it.
RAMALES: Yeah, I use a mask now because one time I had to do it for this music set and I literally felt the paint clogging my lungs. I was like, “What the fuck? This is crazy.”
RIBEIRO: You just cough up blue, it’s gnarly. Frank, I want to talk about your work in the show. It initially reminded me of recalling dreams, the way we stretch and we move things in our minds and people take these weird forms.
DORREY: It’s definitely because I have a bad memory. [Laughs] It feels just like a form of therapy to think back really hard and piece things together. The work feels dreamlike. But it’s still grounded in reality for me, because a lot of the works are references to specific moments. I like the time it takes. It’s an up and down process, but seeing what comes out of it is always a blessing.
RIBEIRO: What is the process of making these? Are you using a software?
DORREY: I make them on my phone on an app called PicsArt. It’s like Photoshop. I piece photos and drawings that I do together and layer them on top of each other and do some stretching and morphing and color shifting. It’s basically a collage of different skills I’ve learned over the years.
RIBEIRO: I love the one with the figure in a blue outfit next to a girl who looks like she’s dancing, and it’s interesting to hear that these moments sometimes are informed by your real life experiences.
DORREY: Yeah, that one is a combination of something super abstract and something real. I remember an instance of going out with this woman and we’re having a good time, but also feeling super weighed down and stagnant. There’s a green figure above too because I was reminded of money. I don’t know, that’s the idea.
RIBEIRO: Sometimes it’s about a vibe. Maybe explaining it too much makes it lose some of that. You guys have carved out a world in such a small space, which is really cool.
RAMALES: What I like about the space is that even though it’s in the heart of the city it feels dream-like, like Uncut Gems, or Beau Is Afraid where the set is very panicked. Obviously, Chinatown is not that intense, but when I’m rushing to the gallery through Chinatown and it’s suddenly calm in this gallery inside of a mall, it feels like you’re somewhere else.
DORREY: Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean.
RIBEIRO: Definitely. There’s a lot going on outside the space. You leave WHAAM!, and you’re in the middle of this mall of toys and lamps. Is the aura photo person still there?
RAMALES: It’s right next to it on the right. Is that where all the TikTok people get their aura photos? That shit threw me off. It made it really feel like a dream.
RIBEIRO: I really am excited for people to see and learn about the show. What’s coming up next for you?
RAMALES: I’m just doing more painting. I want to do a cooking show.
DORREY: I’m working on some animation, which is just a whole lot of studying right now. And I make music.
RIBEIRO: What’s your musician name?
RIBEIRO: I had this moment where I was sent someone your song, “Usher,” like “You’ve got to check this shit out,” and they’re like, “Oh, that’s Frank.” I was so into this song.
RAMALES: Yeah, everyone’s like, “Wait, that’s him?” I tattooed this random person, and they brought a friend, and we all listened to his music that day.
DORREY: Thank you guys.
RIBEIRO: Keep it going.
DORREY: Love, bro.
RAMALES: Thank you.