It is perhaps a challenge to pinpoint what genre of painting Mel Ramos fits under. Some might suggest Pop Art, since like many other artists of that genre Ramos defies elitist subject matter by employing commonplace and culturally recognizable elements in his paintings, as opposed to the esoteric and pretentious content of more classical paintings, a practice common among the likes of Andy Warhol.
Although critic and gallery owner Louis K. Meisel has adopted Ramos’ work into the Photorealist genre, and not without good reason, labelling an artist can be limiting and misleading. The art, if defined by a critic as belonging to a specific genre, may constrain how a viewer approaches the piece. Ultimately, the relationship should be between the artist’s work and the viewer, with the critic or artist in the background, perhaps providing some guidance. Roland Barthes suggests the death of the author in favour of the reader defining the work; the same can be said about art. Regardless of what the critic or the artist may say, the work is defined by each person who views it. This is why fitting the work of a given artist into a specific genre can be limiting. It is perhaps best, rather than to define the genre, to examine how a given painting works. In looking at the content of Ramos’ work and considering the juxtapositions he employs, it is clear that regardless of what genre one might label his work as belonging to, there are some clear themes that are integral to Ramos’ work.
What is perhaps most striking in Ramos’ work is his inclusion of popular brands. He appropriates work from the advertising world and places it squarely in his paintings. Popular logos for companies such as General Electric©, Ritz©, Coca-Cola© and Planters© appear, among many others. In many instances, the corporate logo is juxtaposed next to a nude or provocatively dressed woman. Such is the case with the works: ‘Rita Ritz’ (which juxtaposes a nude woman with a box of Ritz© crackers, ‘A.C. Annie’ (which juxtaposes a nude woman with a spark plug), ‘Miss Kiss’ (which juxtaposes a nude woman with an over-sized Hershey’s Kiss©) and Pepsi Cola (which has a nude woman sitting atop an oversize bottle cap with the Pepsi© logo on it). There are many paintings in this vein. But what are they meant to say? Why are these women nude? For me, the presence of beautiful naked women serves as satire. It lampoons the belief that ‘sex sells’, a mantra adopted by experts and novices in the advertising world alike. Even though copywriters would profess there is more to advertising than scantily clad women, there is no denying the fact that this tactic is too frequently employed.
One need look no further than a beer commercial, or sit through the Super Bowl, or take a walk around an auto-show to see how many beautiful women are incorporated into sales pitches made by the biggest companies in the world. That this was being so clearly satirized in the 1960’s and yet remains prevalent today is a testament to how such practices are entrenched in advertising. Such works seem to suggest or promise beautiful women via association with certain products, which is absurd, and that is what the Juxtaposition of Ramos’ work illustrates. What does a nude woman have to do with spark plugs? Or crackers? Or cola? Nothing. There is no connection between the objects in such pairings. It is a contrivance. Ramos’ work demonstrates how asinine advertising can be, how moronic and simple and base, and in the process challenges the advertising world to make work that is more appropriate, thoughtful and productive. This may seem idealistic, but it is an approach companies like the Benetton Group has adopted, creating controversial and socially progressive ads meant to make a positive change in the world. Oreo has also done the same recently.
The juxtaposition does more than simply demonstrate the foolishness of the advertising world, but also demonstrates how women are objectified by a system run predominantly by men. Women are made to dress provocatively and objectify themselves so that men might be able to sell products to other men. Women, in such practices, are excluded from the process and marginalized, while the focus is entirely on men and on what they want. Women are not permitted to contribute input. They are not speaking and their needs are not addressed (quite the opposite, they are undressed). They are placed alongside logos. The logos are designed to be ascetically pleasing and so the women in the ads are placed on parity terms with the logos, implying that their value is strictly ascetic. It is clear how such placement can be utterly demoralizing.
This relationship is furthered in other works by Ramos, where he opts not to simply place the women alongside a product, but actually puts them in the packaging of the products. This is a practice employed in works such as: ‘Butterfinger’(which features a nude women half wrapped in a chocolate-bar wrapper), ‘Lola Cola #5’ (which features a nude women half submerged in a glass filled with cola), ‘Martini Miss’ (likewise featuring a nude woman, only here half submerged in a martini glass), ‘Fraulein French Fries’ (which features a nude woman whose upper torso is protruding from a carton of french-fries) and ‘Doggie Dinah’ (where a nude woman is placed in the confines of a hotdog bun). There are a host of similar works. These pieces, though similar in appearance to the other works of product placement, do something more. They merge the product with the woman. The woman, no longer simply presented on parity terms with the product, become the product. The women in these works are commodified. They are objects to be consumed. Alongside the logos, they became things to be looked at, but once placed inside a chocolate-bar wrapper, or a hot-dog bun, or a glass filled with cola or alcohol, they are further degraded. It is a portrait of how women are seen by a capitalist patriarchy. They are a commodity to be bought and sold. They are objects to be possessed, consumed and then discarded. They are little more than what might crudely be called whores. Ramos exposes the misogyny of patriarchal capitalism.
What’s more, the women in many instances are also portrayed on parity terms with vices. Whether they juxtaposed with junk food, or alcohol, such is the case with ‘Martini Miss’, or aligned with cigarettes, such as they are in ‘Vantage’ and ‘Lucky Strike’, or cigars such as they are in a series of paintings Ramos did featuring nude women and oversized cigars, these women lack virtue as well. In a contemporary setting the patriarchal system, which at some point at least saw women as ennobling (read any number of sonnet written in the Renaissance), now see them as the manifestation of vice. Such vice takes on overt sexual overtones in paintings like: ‘Hav a Havana I’ and other from the series which features nude women riding giant cigars, whose phallic nature is obvious to even the most naive viewer. It is clear that these women are presented as wanton sex objects. Does the advertising world do this as overtly as Ramos’ work would suggest? No; of course not. It is more subtle, but the implications are the same. Whether the women in the ads are wearing nothing, bikinis, or form fitting dresses with low-cut tops, the intent remains the same. Ramos takes the theme to an extreme to highlight the subtle implications of popular advertising.
One of the more disheartening aspects of the satire is the implied audience. Advertisers are aiming to sell their work and so aim their advertisements at the people they expect to buy. In Ramos’ work we can see that the projected audience is exclusively male. It is the male gaze that these works seek to invoke, much as advertisers did. The input of women is ignored. There is no attempt to appeal to women. It is implied that men have the money and men decide how it shall be spent. The fact that the ads fail to appeal to women suggests that their input is not solicited and no attempt is made to reason with them (though more recent efforts have been made to appeal to women in advertising, such efforts were underwhelming during the time which Ramos was first working). Ironically, however, there is no real attempt to reason with men either. The paintings display a mentality that is limited. It is assumed the audience, which is male, is also too simple to see through this flawed approach to advertising. A nude woman does not speak to the quality of automotive parts, but rather than speak to the content of the product, the advertiser chooses to bypass that and speak straight to the man’s penis. This, though frustrating, also implies the inherent flaw of patriarchy; that sexual desire drives men more than does reason.
Ramos’ work also reveals an ideal of beauty that follows a uniform prescription. Though hair colour varies, skin colour does not vary as much, nor does the body style. The women, for the most part, are white and voluptuous. There is a circumscribed idea of beauty projected onto women, and also men. These ads are meant to be fantasies, and according to these fantasies women who are thin and who have humble chests, do not fit the male fantasy any more than women whose waistline is equal to or greater than their bust and hip lines. Likewise, the implication is that every male fantasizes about white women, even men of other perceived races. Asian women, Black women and any other women whose skin colour is a hue darker than white does not fit in the prescribed idea of beauty according to such advertisements. Ramos makes the ‘white’ bias clear as he demonstrates in his work how utterly lacking diversity was (and perhaps is). Looking at pin-up art work from the period, Ramos’ presentation becomes tragically accurate. Among the most famous pin-up artists of the time, it was perhaps only Alberto Vargas who made Black women the subjects of some of his paintings, and even he did very few of them (one would require only one hand to make a comprehensive count of such works). I have not seen a woman of ‘colour’ in the works of: Gil Elvgren, Harry Ekman, Ernest Chiriacka or Fritz Willis. There may be some examples, but such instances are underwhelming. This is not to say the artists carried such biases, merely that the companies for which they worked did. Such rigidly outlined ideas of beauty are destined to create disappointment in men and women alike. Women will be unhappy with their bodies, and men will be made to feel that the women they love do not measure up to social standards of beauty.
Ramos’ work, like the work of John Currin, may seem overtly sexual upon first viewing. The work may seem to endorse the objectification of women, or the commodification of women, but is does not. It examines how advertising objectifies and commodifies women and deconstructs the process, then recreates it in extremes, placing the implications of sexualized advertising under a microscope to demonstrate the demeaning nature of such approaches. We see overtly what is only hinted at in advertising. The implications that are woven in either consciously or subconsciously, are magnified in Ramos’ work. It is a satire on the objectification of women; on the commodification of women and on the tyranny of patriarchy.