Painted in 1964, Peek-a-boo, Platinum #2 is one of Mel Ramos's very first paintings of the female nude. Based on a postcard of a pin-up girl viewed through a keyhole, it belongs to a series of Peek-a-boo paintings which have come to define the artist's mature style. In this suite of paintings, each is titled according to the hair colour of the 'playmate' who seductively poses in the key-shaped aperture, encouraging the beholder's voyeuristic gaze. Far from bashful, the teasing and curvaceous glamour girl in Peek-a-boo, Platinum #2 exudes confidence and encourages viewer participation. Posing for the viewer hand on hip, in her state of undress she is nonetheless fully made up in dramatic mascara and fuchsia lip gloss. Her platinum blonde locks, stylishly arranged in a quintessentially 1960s bouffant hairdo, further elevate the vintage appeal of the present example, sparking nostalgia for a very specific era which witnessed the first steps of sexual liberation.
Deliberately erotic, Ramos uses the female form in his Pop iconography to comment on the increasing use of sex to sell commercial products in the advertising industry. However, rather like Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nudes, the artist's multi-layered paintings also engage and update the motif of the nude in art history, incorporating it into a strictly Pop lexicon. In particular, Peek-a-boo, Platinum #2 explores the modernist notion of the female gaze. Like Edouard Manet's infamously confrontational female protagonists, Ramos's semi-nude (or better naked) model stares directly out of the canvas at the beholder, thereby engaging our space and co-opting the viewer into a complicit participant in this elicit exchange. While on the one hand the compositional device of the stylized keyhole puts the viewer in the position of voyeur, the fact that the blonde bombshell returns our gaze, staring back at us with a come-hither glint in her eye, means that she is aware our presence. Like Manet's painting of Nana in which the protagonist's outward gaze located the nineteenth-century male viewer in the socially proscribed environment of the stage girl's dressing room, Ramos's painting forces us to acknowledge a frank sexual exchange, laying bare the titillation that has existed for centuries in the motif of the nude, concealed behind the aesthetic veneer of art historical gloss.
Synthesizing the contemporary idolization of figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot into the conventions of art history, Ramos's Peek-a-boo series is a celebration of popular culture and the artist's most significant contribution to the burgeoning Pop movement. Like Warhol's 'flavoured' Marilyns, Ramos's coterie of blonde, redhead, raven and platinum pin-ups have become icons of their era, synonymous with the decade in which they were made.
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