Ramos began his artistic career struggling with the immense influence of Abstract Expressionism, particularly its signature style of gestural brushstrokes and freedom of the hand. By the early 1960s, Ramos abandoned such derivative rehashing of the previously dominant movement and embraced his own signature technique of figurative painting based on comic books. This tied him in with the two pioneering Pop artists of the time–Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol–both of whom shared a deep relationship with Ivan Karp, Leo Castelli’s right hand. It was only in 1963-64 that the Mel Ramos of today emerged with a completely individual and mature style with his paintings of beautiful and alluring, yet also prohibitively perfect women. These early paintings often paired Ramos’ painted goddesses with a commercial product or commodity. One cannot deny the brazen seductive power of these bright nubile figures whose sumptuous forms and figures are matched evocatively by Ramos’ unsurpassed painterly technique.
To dismiss Ramos' pinups as fanciful examples of the male desire is to underestimate the complexity behind such imagery and the context from which they emerged. Indeed, Val Veeta, painted in 1965, is an important example of Ramos' most prized series for it makes the undertones of his painting practice more explicit. Here, the beautiful brunette subject lies perched upon a pack of Velveeta, the first processed cheese ever made. Developed by Kraft in the early 1920s, Velveeta was marketed for its nutritional value and ability to build 'firm flesh' as endorsed by the American Medical Association in 1931. Ramos selected the perfect food with its fame for building such 'firm flesh' as a sly reference to his own painted nudes and their supple nature. Further, the use of Velveeta is doubly noteworthy for referring to the all-American idea of mass-produced food. Thus a link between processed food and the idealistic women pictured in Ramos’ paintings is forged, climaxing in the pinnacle of one's sexual appetite.
The not-so-hidden secret behind Ramos' women is his remark that these women are mass-produced products similar to the idea of the celebrity as a mass-produced and widely-disseminated brand. On this, filmmaker Billy Wilder once remarked: "The question really is whether Marilyn [Monroe] is a real person or one of the greatest synthetic products ever invented." Ramos' paradox is uncannily realistic; a realist by innuendo and by insinuation, he creates an illusion and undermines it with the same deft perfectionist touch. His women are too good to be true, which is why they are dreams, processed to an industrial level much like that of Velveeta. Ramos skillfully achieves this paradox by being hyper-aware of time-honored painting methods and techniques while still also exploring and expounding on a totally new imagery. In one canvas, Ramos presents a revolutionary way of seeing and expressing ideas about the Contemporary female figure and the female nude in art.
Mel Ramos has deftly and perceptively fused Pop culture and mass media with the art historical tradition of the female nude, ranging from Apelles, the ancient Greek painter to Ingres and his impossibly perfect female figures. Most of Ramos’ nudes are similar composites of ideal parts, brought together in a “dream of wholeness,” as Stuart Ewen calls it. The result is an image of “stark perfection,” as an image, as Ewen remarks, from which “all elements of spontaneity, or of individuality, have been removed." One is reminded of Velveeta’s proud campaign that their processed cheese contains 'Colby, Swiss and Cheddar, blended all together.' A delectable hybrid that would be impossible to achieve outside of a factory setting is directly called upon and fabricated in Ramos' Val Veeta. Laden with irony and impeccably painted, Ramos’ paintings hold up a mirror to our time showing us the artificiality in everything.
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