"Velazquez Version," lighograph
on paper, 1981.
"Love," o/c, 18 x 14", 1965.
"Joker," o/c, 50 x 44", 1962.
"Tobacco Red," lithograph on paper, ed. 2500, 31
1/2" x 25", 1972
by Nancy Kay Turner
(Kantor Gallery, West Hollywood) Thirty-five years ago artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist on the East Coast counted among their leading West Coast Pop counterparts Mel Ramos. All worked with imagery garnered from popular culture and the mass media. Comic book heroes, movie stars, and advertising served as the iconoclastic subject matter of these then radical figurative painters.
Pop art values were directly oppositional to all that had been held sacred
to the high art of the 1940's and 50's, when Abstract Expressionism was
king. Instead of abstraction, there was figuration; instead of deeply crusted,
heavily worked surfaces, there were crisp, hard edges and flat, unmodulated
color; instead of angst there was ironic detachment.
Art history itself became subject matter, as Pop artists made "Art
about Art," art that was self-referential. It was in this particular
arena that Ramos carved out a niche for himself by creating humorous parodies
of famous artists' work.
In Velazquez Version, a lithograph on paper from 1981, Ramos married
impeccable photorealistic painting and drawing skills to Old Master appropriation
to create one of his most memorable images. This print is based on the 1975
oil painting of the same name. The composition is that of Velazquez'Venus
and Cupid, with the irreverent addition of a monkey holding the mirror
that the recumbent beauty is looking into. The image of a beautiful woman
looking into a mirror ("Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest
of them all?") comments not only on vanity but also voyeurism. Ramos'
sensuous paint handling only serves to accentuate the airbrushed perfection
of this idealized female.
Philip Morris, a silkscreen on paper of 1965, is vintage Ramos.
He provocatively situates a Playboy bunny-like nude straddling a huge pack
of Philip Morris. All the layers of meaning in the sly image overshadow
Ramos' considerable technical abilities. Though obviously a comment on the
American way of business, which uses sex to sell everything, Ramos also
focuses back on the nude in art history. Here the model, looking suggestively
out at the audience as she does, is clearly a knowing, com-plicitous sex
symbol. Though Ramos is ostensibly commenting on this practice, he is ironically
vunerable to accusations of sexual exploitation. These nudes mimic the suggestive
poses and attitudes found in girlie magazines so well as to evoke the same
response from an unknowing viewer.
This show offers us a chance to see an early large oil, The Joker
(1962). Though the paint handling is more sensuous than what we have come
to expect from Pop art paintings (with the notable exception of Ramos' teacher,
Wayne Thiebaud), the image seems hackneyed and trite. Clearly Ramos is better
when he paint nudes and engages the viewer with his considerable sense of
Apparently Ramos tried to deviate from this formula, one which had been
so successful but limiting. He painted landscapes (none of which are in
this show), but after a poor response by both critics and the audience he
returned to the nudes. The newest work is identical to his earliest work,
but it lacks the same magic. Unfortunately, he has not been able to move
beyond his original vision, so well represented here, to a more mature and
challenging body of work.