Category Archives: Revisionism

Pinboard #5: Mel Ramos

Left: Mel Ramos, “Life Saver”, 1965. Right: Mel Ramos, “Lifesaver Lil”, 2009

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.”[1]  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.

Additional Sources:

http://www.srcart.com/art_ramos_bio.html

http://palmspringsfineartfair.com/mel-ramos-wins-lifetime-achievement-award/

http://www.melramos.com/


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/arts/design/25john.html

Pinboard Entry #5: Post-Race Covergirl

Ann Coulter Mugged Book Cover 2012

On her book cover, Republican commentator Ann Coulter appears to lean on the black band at the bottom of the book, which serves as her nameplate and also establishes her status as a bestselling author. Her blonde hair falls over her shoulders and chest, which are exposed by her tight, sleeveless dress. Her gold cross catches the light, and she gives the camera a tight smile. By all accounts, this is a glamor shot which would seem more appropriate for a memoir or a book about personal hygiene than one on race.

Mugged, which is Coulter’s eighth book to date, revises history by arguing that liberals have not historically been the champions of racial equality in the United States. The book was released in late September, and Coulter’s subsequent promotional television appearances clearly establish that she intended for it to have an outcome on the election. In addition to arguing that President Obama’s election in 2008 was more a consequence of white liberal guilt than a milestone in American political history, she attempts to show that Obama lost support among African Americans during his first administration. Coulter’s book is  an stunning example of what Bill Maher calls the “Republican Bubble”—an alternative universe where “facts” need have no basis in reality—and many public figures, including Maher and Whoopi Goldberg, have called her out on this.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, this book can be judged by its cover, which betrays the  insincerity of Coulter’s inquiry into race in the United States. The juxtapositioning of her title, “Mugged” in bold black typeface, which conjures images of urban violence, over her blond, blue-eyed head shot is a deliberate attempt to claim that white people are the victims—of decades of “racial demagoguery,” as her subtitle bears out. By casting her discussion of race in America in her own dyed, dieted and cross-bearing image, Coulter is targeting her audience: white conservatives who may be sympathetic to her spurious argument that racial inequality exists only in the imagination and discourse of liberal America.

Chapter Entry: The Misrecognition of Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother
1936
source: Library of Congress

In “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity,” Sally Stein sifts through the legacy of a familiar image with a history of misrecognition. Migrant Mother, which Stein asserts is the “most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making” is a portrait of Florence Thompson that Lange took at a labor camp in Nipomo, California in 1936 [1]. Since its conception, the photograph has been criticized from various points of view, and Stein spends the beginning of her essay recording these reactions, from the outrage of Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker, when he learned that Lange had retouched the “documentary” image, to cultural historian Wendy Kozol’s critique of the image as “a quintessential example of the FSA traffic in conservative stereotypes” [2].  Stein’s real interest lay in how Thompson gained iconic status as a white “New Deal Madonna” despite her Cherokee heritage and unmarried status, information that began to circulate as part of the photograph’s history only half a century after it was taken. The paradox of iconicity thus seems to be that Thompson was not the iconic white matriarch that she was initially taken to be; she is instead an icon of the Euro-American tendency to misrecognize Native Americans as both heirs and foils to their own racial identity.

Early in her essay, Stein demonstrates how the image was misrecognized as a symbol of conservative family values. The photograph shows Thompson flanked by two young children as she cradles a sleeping infant. The older children turn away from the camera, using Thompson’s body as a shield, while the baby dozes near her breast. Thompson’s body is thus a source of protection and sustenance, even as her worried eyes betray concern. Stein paraphrases Kozol’s argument that such images of mothers and children “chiefly served to reassure the public in the Great Depression that the most fundamental social unit—the nuclear family—was beleaguered but still strong” [3]. In reality, however, Thompson’s social unit was fractured: Thompson’s first husband died of tuberculosis in 1931, and the infant in the picture is the son of Jim Hill, from whom she would separate in the 1940s.

The perception that Lange’s subject was married and that all of her children had the same father is an example of how photographs invite assumptions that may belie the actual circumstances of the people they depict—a disconnect that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to photography’s false transparency. For spectators bring a wealth of culturally embedded assumptions to bear on the photographs they view, imbuing them with meaning that is external to the image. For instance, in this photograph, there is no patriarch, so why would a spectator assume that Thompson is supported by a stable marriage? That assumption comes not only from what a spectator may want to believe—she might feel better looking at this worried woman and her soiled children if she believes there is a man off screen who is supporting them—it also comes from the context of the photograph, which was indeed a government-endorsed image. Migrant Mother is part of a body of images taken by photographers who were dispatched by the FSA to “make a dent in the world” [4]. Their portraits of struggling Americans elicited a wide range of emotions—empathy, admiration and pride among them. FSA photographs may have been relevatory of American poverty and struggle, but they were also a screen on which spectators could project their own desires, namely about the perseverance of fellow Americans in the wake of catastrophe.

FSA photographs like Migrant Mother invited spectators to see what they both wanted and expected to see. This is not only how a widow with children out of wedlock became a “New Deal Madonna,” it is also how her Native American ancestry was mistaken for European ancestry. Stein shows how the FSA did not favor ethnic diversity by including a passage in which Roy Stryker, the aforementioned head of the FSA, explicitly discourages photographer Arthur Rothstein from photographing Native Americans: He writes,“You know I just don’t get too excited about Indians. I know it is their country and we took it away from them—to hell with it!”  [5].  For me, this is the most interesting part of the story, because it reveals how certain populations were denied visibility in the portrait of Americanness that was articulated through the visual culture of this period. Scholars like Erika Doss have pointed out how the Index of American Design, a visual encyclopedia of American folk and decorative arts that was another federally-funded Depression era initiative, largely depicted the work of Anglo Americans, including only token pieces done by Native Americans, African Americans, Southern European Americans and others who didn’t pass a certain benchmark of whiteness [6].

In her recent book, The History of White People, Nell Painter demonstrates how the category of whiteness has been in flux throughout United States history, expanding and contracting at various historical moments to include peoples of different ethnic backgrounds [7]. The Depression era was a moment when the Anglo Saxon paradigm of whiteness was reasserted in a variety of ways, especially through the veneration of folk art in English (Shaker) and German (Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions. Stein uses the words of Edmund Wilson, a literary critic and social journalist, as a testament to the privileging of Anglo heritage, despite its dilution through racial mixing, in this period: “the pure type of that English race which, assimilated on the frontier to the Indians’ hatchet profile and high cheekbones, inbred in Boston and Virginia, still haunts our American imagination as the norm from which our people have departed, the ideal towards which it ought to tend” [8].

Wilson’s words, particularly his phrasing “haunts our American imagination” reveal how Anglo Americanness has always been more of a fantasy than a reality, and that is certainly the case with Migrant Mother. After the photojournalist Bill Ganzel tracked Thompson down in 1979, the truth about Thompson’s Cherokee heritage was finally acknowledged. Whether Lange failed to be vigilant in recording the personal details of her subject or whether she willfully elided them due to her boss’s open disdain for photographs of Native Americans, the end result is the same: For decades, Thompson has been misrecognized as an ideal Euro American woman, attaining an iconicity that cannot be undone easily. Stein points out, for instance, that a recent book on race in 20th-century America continued the misrecognition of Thompson, reprinting Migrant Mother with a caption that identifies her as a “Nordic” woman and claims, “Her suffering could be thought to represent the nation in ways the distress of a black, Hispanic, Italian, or Jewish woman never could” [9]. The enduring perception that Thompson was a white woman is an example of the persistence of myth. According to Roland Barthes, “It does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” [10].

Perhaps the widespread misrecognition of Thompson is too entrenched to be undone, but Stein’s essay demonstrates how this image is wrapped up in another kind of iconicity—as a representation of  how Euro-Americans have a history of appropriating Native Americans likenesses when imaging their own identities. Artists like Edward S. Curtis pictured Native Americans as a “vanishing race,” an approach that was not only primitivizing but also added gravitas to the definition of Americanness, in the sense that it created an evolutionary depth to the American people, despite the coevalness of native and non-Native Americans. Migrant Mother was taken about a century after President Jackson used the rhetoric of the progression of civilization in a speech to Congress in which he justified the violent means of Indian Removal as  “the extinction of one generation to make room for another” [11].

If the FSA photographs are read as a kind of yearbook of Depression-era Americans, then on the surface Native Americans appear to be as extinct as Jackson intended they would be. The irony is that Migrant Mother, the photograph which has earned the superlative of “Most American Woman” by virtue of its unrivaled circulation, actually pictures a Native American woman passing as a Euro-American woman. The inclusion of Migrant Mother in Only Skin Deep is crucial, because this image and its history of misrecognition demonstrate how racial categories are constructed through subjective perception and projection. Thompson’s skin color was light enough and her motherly obligations were prevalent enough for generations of spectators to project a fantasy of white motherhood onto her, but in reality, her misrecognition and mythologization as a white Madonna reflects more truths about what those spectators wanted to see than truths about what was actually there.

Endnotes:

1. pg. 345, Stein, Sally. “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

2. & 3. pg. 346, Stein.

4. See Mora, Gilles, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. FSA: The American Vision. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

5. pg. 352 Stein

6. See Doss, Erika. “American Folk Art’s ‘Distinctive Character:’ The Index of American Design and New Deal Notions of Cultural Nationalism.” In Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design, edited by Virginia Tuttle Clayton. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

7. See Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

8. & 9. pg. 354, Stein

10. pg. 130, Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

11. pg. 79, Truettner, William H. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Quoted in William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 79.

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire
2007

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

Pinboard Entry #6: Black History Painting

Kerry James Marshall
Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man 1646)
source: artslant.com

In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.

Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall  has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.

In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness  For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.