Los Angeles

John Chamberlain and Mel Ramos

Mizuno Gallery and David Stuart Gallery

John Chamberlain and Mel Ramos, both with shows of individually new work nevertheless firmly planted in their respective grooves, are a polar pair: art as pure play and art as the calculated product of a professional. Chamberlain is the player, the artist who links up the caveman, with a glimmer of an idea lurking in the back of his head, and the contemporary, dedicated, alien, humanist-intellectual. “If this bit of next-to-nothing can’t, by rule, be art,” he seems to say, “then nothing is.” What Chamberlain shows this time are seven crumpled paper-bag sculptures, some unadulterated, others with black cardboard or black-backed leadfoil additions, liberally splashed and soaked with polyester resin (polyester resin is becoming as standard an artist-manhood necessity as Duco house paint was half a generation ago) and displayed, with only one exception, on five-foot-high plexiglass pedestals.

The pieces contain a sense of impending explosion of scale, harking back to the great big things like Uncle Bob and the great little things like Femme à chapeau in Chamberlain’s earlier work. The sense of pure play is also the sense of an artist at work, insistent on the integrity of his materials. It’s a good minor show by a major artist who might also be playing around with the idea of “surfacing.”

Ramos, on the other hand, connects the Renaissance with the art director, combining the labor of an honest craft (realistic figure painting), an accessible image (young, creamy, naked women of the ’60s—long, straight hair, big boobs, pale nipples, no genitalia) and an audience-expectation (for paintings which function at once as hip Pop, fine art, decoration, and polite eroticism). Ramos has got his Thiebaud-cum-Varga thing down to a science: the solitary image, the outline-halation, the “embedding” of the scumbled flesh into a raised background, and the arbitrary, illogical shadows anchoring the simple compositions. The attendant ten lithographs combine a grainy image of a nude (a processed photograph), a sharp, clearly drawn bird (which, like the pelican in one of the paintings, cutely conceals the pubic regions), and bits of print shop embellishment—metallic surfaces, embossing, etc. I found the lithographs unsatisfactory, looking on first glance like record album covers and on second glance like superbly designed institutional advertisements (e.g., Union Carbide making a point about air pollution). But the lithographs suffer not from concept, but merely from being commercial on a pedestrian level; Ramos, however, believes in the paintings, and it is with them we must decide why, in spite of all those compartments of desirability, they seem so soul-less, even ingested tongue-in-cheek. I think it is because, indicating the borders on either side, they are not as bravely crummy as Warhol’s silk-screen paintings and not as really whimsical as Ed Ruscha’s gunpowder drawings.

Peter Plagens