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Mel Ramos: Pop Art Images.

I have always liked the work of Mel Ramos. I believe that this liking is a learned behavior--that I was taught not only to objectify women but to enjoy objectifying women. So I'm not really sure if I like this work or at any rate if I like liking this work. That's why I was happy to find a book on Mel Ramos and to find out why someone else likes this work.

Ramos is best known for Pop paintings of big-breasted models hinged to products like Valvoline, Milky Way bars, and cigarettes. In his essay here Robert Rosenblum describes these women as "a race of sun-kissed pinup girls, their breasts afloat in seas of grapefruit, their torsos welded to an erect banana." Rosenblum also describes the work's surface as "a glistening coat of buttery frosting that seemed to cover the girls with suntan oil." This of course is what I too like about Ramos' paintings, which recapture the pubescent glee of fingering Playboy and getting light-headed and dumb, the strange lift one got from sniffing out smut and sucking the images off the page. You don't have to have a penis to think like a dick, because the women in Ramos' painting are so unreal. Enjoying them has little to do with one's sex or sexual preference and more to do with the inclination to nosedive into the scent and not the thing.

Defending an old Pop star whose greatest hits are obviously misogynistic, and whose new work the book so underrepresents as to suggest a lack of confidence, Rosenblum was not in an enviable position. His solution was to merge a glossy faux-sensualist vocabulary with a brief lesson on Ramos' art-historical place, pumping the artist up by relying on his old status as a peer of Andy Warhol's and Roy Lichtenstein's. Rosenblum also tries to give Ramos' motives a feminist spin, as if they critiqued their own use of the female body--but his hands are a bit slow, his smoke easy to see through, his sheepish justifications only making the holes in his argument larger. Rosenblum is at his best when he spirals extravagantly ("Even wilder than Europa's bull are the mammals Ramos rounded up as sexy playmates for Leda. . . . her perfect female flesh can rub against a fabulous inventory of animal textures"), when he admits to liking the work because it's luscious and nasty and makes one feel luscious and nasty for liking it. To get such a feeling from art is no small thing, but also not a thing that art historians are encouraged to celebrate.

Rosenblum's New Yorker vision of California highlights the point of privilege from which he views art. To him, Ramos' California of the '60s is a two-girls-per-guy beach, "a tropical Arcadia where, nevertheless, American commerce and sex could flourish, undisturbed by the weather, grit and contradictions of New York life." The Watts riots and the low-riders disappear, caulked out of the picture with globs of cocoa butter. Rosenblum likens Ramos and California to Gauguin and Tahiti. In fact these dyads are opposites--Gauguin was a white European alien painting "native" girls, Ramos an artist of Hispanic parentage, California born and bred, painting white peroxide-blondes. The five paintings of Latinas in Mel Ramos are subtly different from the other pictures in ways Rosenblum neglects to mention: Spicey and Kiss Me are perfect capsules of the American vision of Latin women--spicy, red-hot-and-fiery, Rita, not Natalie, in West Side Story. Miss Navel Orange and Miss Lemon Drop, both models posed before giant versions of their respective fruits, surely hint at agribusiness' exploitation of migrant workers. Senorita Rio--The Queen of Spies, on the other hand, with her smoking gun at breast level, is a dangerous superhero--and it's easy to imagine what she threatens. Whether or not Ramos consciously set out to explode the white-female trophy, his mimicry of contemporary advertising rituals clearly illustrates his awareness of the all-American desire to be all-American. A book of his images allows us to look at Pop all over again, in maybe its most potent and dangerous form.

Collier Schorr is the U.S. editor of Frieze magazine and contributes regularly to Artforum.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
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Author:Schorr, Collier
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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