MEL RAMOS 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'
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
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 humor.
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.