Mel Ramos has drawn ire from feminists and the art-world alike throughout the course of his career. Ramos was born in California and began studying art under Wayne Thiebaud in 1954. His career began in the early 1960s with paintings of images from comic books. In 1963, Ramos participated in a group show at LACMA in which his paintings along with similar works by iconic Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. However, Ramos is most known for his depiction of female nudes posed as pin-ups who interact in some sexual manner with commercial objects (e.g. Chiquita bananas, Hunt’s ketchup, Payday candy bars, etc.).
The two works featured here are in keeping with Ramos’ general oeuvre. The image on the left, entitled “Life Saver,” is a 1965 oil on canvas. The work on the right is entitled “Lifesaver Lil” and is a 2009 drawing. Although these two works were not directly intended to be exhibited next to each other, contrasting them side by side, begs the question, “what’s changed?” Both works feature a nude woman who stares seductively out at the viewer. The sexuality of both women is enhanced not only by their nudity but also by the manner in which they are posed. In the 1965 version, the woman balances on her tiptoes, grasping the top of life-sized roll of lifesavers around which she wraps her bent right leg. In “Lifesaver Lil” the woman thrusts her breasts forward between her arms while pushing down on the top of a roll of Lifesavers that obscures her genitals yet abuts her body in a phallic manner.
Although Ramos describes these works as “not too erotic” with a “trace of humor” and in “good taste”, their explicitly erotic nature produces images of undeniably sexualized women. The question, for me however, is not so much the ways in which these images may or may not continue to perpetuate sexist notions of gender, rather is if and how reception to these images may have changed. In 2009, New York Times critic Ken Johnson described a friends experience on seeing Ramos’s work now as opposed to in the 1970s. Whereas in the 70s the works had infuriated her, now they were “benignly amusing.” Such a shift is reflective of generalized contemporary approach to a myriad of once controversial topics and images. Notions of sexuality and gender that once seemed to define what it meant to be a woman or a man or a sexual person now seem quaint and out of touch. Many would likely see the aforementioned reception to Ramos’s work as a sign of progress. In a post-post everything world, accepting and ironically appropriating formerly oppressive visualities is a means of demonstrating a contemporary empowerment. I am skeptical however, as to the degree to which such appropriation is truly empowering, especially in the context of Ramos’s images. Ramos, as these two works show, continues to work within the same milieu, the same nexus of cultural and personal referents and to the same end. If all it takes is time for us to interpret his work differently is that really moving forward? Of course, time and cultural shifts, undoubtedly make things that were once offensive or troublesome much more accepted. While interpreting the same image differently over the course of time is an integral part of art history, in the context of the nude female figure in art, it is not enough to simply say that times have changed. Although not all of Ramos’s work is inherently sexist, nor do I think it should be read as such, an inquiry into the female nude must go beyond the mere revision that Mr. Ramos’s work lends itself to; if the answer to “what’s changed?” is nothing, then an interpretation cannot reveal changes that have not occurred. In short, Ramos’s images are, to me, more problematic in a contemporary setting than they were in the 1970s.