Tag Archives: Looking

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

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.

Introduction: Framing the Discussion

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587                                                      Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587) Self-Portrait

This week’s class was an exercise in locating- locating ourselves in the course as well as the locating the artists and works we are studying within an art historical narrative. Thus, the focus was primarily on establishing a basic mode of inquiry into the intersection of race, gender and art.  We discussed just what exactly terms such as “gender” mean within the context of the course.   In this week’s text, Gender and Art, Gill Perry provided the following definition of gender: “a cultural construction of femininity and masculinity, as opposed to the biological sex (male or female) which we are born with.” (Perry 8).

One critique of this definition, however, is its failure to locate the notion of gender within any sort of temporal or referential locus.  In the context of the 16th and 17th century, the need for a more rooted conception of gender manifested itself in our viewings of self-portraits created by female artists.  While these portraits by artists such as Catharina de Hemessen, Sophonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster clearly conveyed culturally constructed elements of gender, they also asserted gender in a manner distinctly rooted in temporal and historical associations not captured by Perry’s conception of gender.

Another component of this week’s discussion was the use of several themes as a means of structuring the discussion and facilitating continued inquiry throughout the course.  These themes were – (re)claiming, looking, portraying, performing and making. In keeping with the notion of “locating” the themes were used to anchor our interpretations by framing the discussion in terms of various notions of “self” (e.g. us as viewers or the artist as creator) and “other” (e.g. diegetic audiences within the works or various external audiences). Thus, each theme enabled both broad and narrow exploration of the ways in which identity (meaning sense of self) is formulated, presented, projected, perceived and interpreted by artists and viewers alike.

– Jess Newman