Burlesquing Media
Mel Ramos retrospective at Bernaducci Meisel Gallery

It is when a cigar is not just a cigar that it is really fun. Mel Ramos understood that from the get-go. This playful, bawdy, brash retrospective selection testifies to the gamesmanship that has made Ramos—and Pop Art, for all its flaws—so popular. In material and cultural terms, much has changed, disappeared, or done an about-face since Pop’s heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. What is left grants this condensed survey a certain piquancy.

Mel Ramos, Hav-a-Havana II (1998)

Born in Sacramento in 1935, Ramos grew up in the confident post-World-War-II era. America was flush with moral and military victory over two lethal enemies. Manufacturing was at a peak; we were still an export nation. Consumer culture stretched across the country like Route 66, the Mother Road of growing prosperity. Ramos came of age as a painter at the very moment Pop Art, cocksure and heedless, asserted its claim to the promises of affluence and the reigning assumption of its permanence. If this exhibition declared a theme song, it would have to be Mary Hopkin’s 1968 single “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” We thought they’d never end.

Ramos’ hallmark bawdiness drew from the pinup queens of the war years, a spin-off of Hollywood’s postwar invention, the sex goddess. His pictorial chicanery, particularly in the first two decades of his career, drew its vitality from association with images that kept to the naughty-but-nice side of a cultural line between erotica and pornography, a divide that no longer exists. The best of his subsequent work holds to that initial tongue-in-cheek genius, one that straddles the contradictory convergence of second wave feminism and the sexual revolution.

Frank Powolny, Betty Grable (1942)

Ramos’ D-cup sweetie, holding on to a mammoth spark plug and smiling over her shoulder is the air-headed descendent of a leggy Betty Grable. Grable’s image, back to the viewer and in swim suit and heels, was reproduced on the noses of hundred of bombers. From Fort Sill to the Siegfried Line, tens of thousands of pilots, sailors, GIs, and marines kept themselves company with photos of the wartime bombshell. A test version of the atomic bomb was named “Rita” and carried Hayworth’s picture. Jane Russell, her back against a haystack, was the sultry predecessor of Lucky Lulu Blonde (1965), its bare-breasted girl rampant on a pack of Lucky Strikes.

The step down from real women in coy poses to Ramos’ vacuous counterfeits is exquisitely tuned to the temper of its age. When selling the war effort had run its course, selling brand names rushed to fill the vacuum. The shift from sacrifice and service to gratification and consumption was hardly an even trade. Ramos picked up on the disparity between the ethos of the barracks and of Madison Avenue with a sly humor that earns his stylized females a permanent place in twentieth-century cultural history.
Tousel-haired doxies ride oversized Havanas, rise out of banana peels, candy wrappers, and corn stalks. They play peek-a-boo behind ketchup bottles and perch, tellingly, on Velveeta cheese boxes. All kittenish artifice, they are plausible, if sardonic, analogues to Madison Avenue’s fetishizing of the female form to stimulate lust for goods. They remain permanent participants in the American conversation between high art and low.

Mel Ramos, Coca Cola (1972)

Where Ramos’ imagery retreats from rambunctious postwar optimism, it edges toward the cynicism of a Larry Flynt and the pole-dancing-as-empowerment mentality of contemporary pop culture. If feminism turned around to bite Ramos, it was not without warrant. Many of his art historical appropriations, for example, suffer a slackening of wit. The play goes out of them, leaving cleverness in the titles—e.g. You Get More Salami With Modigliani—but sparse on canvas.  His series of vacant studio models conforms to the Playboy paradigm while seeming to mock it. These gals have all the tactile appeal of inflatable dolls. Separated from the iconic logos that bind the work to  media postures, his figures become ciphers in search of a purpose. Nudity notwithstanding, they cannot be called sensual, a quality distinct from nakedness.

Inherent in Ramos’ early burlesques is recognition of media’s dependence on female props for pumping everything from clothes and cosmetics to cars and, today, TV news. Absent that real world link, with its wry undertone, the tour de force flattens; there is less to compel attention. Even so, it is hard now to fault Ramos for providing an accurate barometer of vulgarity’s rise to popular stature.  In retrospect, Ramos’ steamy female super heroes, his Ketsup Kween and all her fey sisters, stand in witness to a cultural moment that coarsened with our consent. “We’d live the life we’d choose/ . . . For we were young and sure to have our way.”


Mel Ramos: Selections from the Retrospective until March 31. Bernaducci-Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57 Street, 212.593.3757.

This review appeared first in CityArts March 6, 2012.

Copyright 2012 Maureen Mullarkey

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