New York

Mel Ramos

Pop veteran Mel Ramos has expanded the series he began with his pinup Ingres, mounting a show of paintings recasting well-known compositions of nudes by Boucher, David, Gérard, Ingres, Manet, and Modigliani in contemporary terms, like a Las Vegas nightmare of the Louvre. Ramos’ style is a crisp version of commercial illustration. He paints people and things in the same flat photographic light. His debt to Playboy illustrator Vargas is obvious, and this exhibition shows that Ramos has kept pace with the venerable purveyor. His nudes, with their modish pubic hair, reflect the latest soft-core fashion.

Many Pop painters and more recent Realists have reprised figures and compositions from past and modern masters, but few have done so with such directed intent. Ramos puts forth a round of traditional poses that come under the rubric of sexual imagery, as a digest of erotic male visions of womanflesh restated as wisecracks. He is relentless in his reduction of two centuries of erotic images to a uniform and unhappy contemporary vernacular. History flattens in his hands.

Ramos confronts salon painting and saloon pictures. His Olympia becomes a historical as well as pictorial reenactment of Manet’s image of available sexual property, and it is thereby reinvested with an aspect of the punch it must have had when it scandalized Parisians in 1865.

Ramos paints himself in the guise of Cupid in two quotations of vapid Neoclassical compositions on the Cupid and Psyche theme (by David and Gérard). David’s Duo becomes a ludicrous rodomontade for Ramos’ masculine ego, the artist arising from the love bed after a night in comic-book heaven.

Art historians have consistently branded Ramos’ models as regressive Empire period essays in the Neoclassic style, and David’s late work is regarded as something of an embarrassment to scholars. The devalued sentimental content of Ramos’ prototypes, then, lends historical leverage to his works of Pop braggadocio.

––Alan Moore