The Naked Eye
(page 2 of 7)
And a hefty bandwagon it is. The Crocker will exhibit approximately 70 pieces in all, including one of a scantily clad female superhero named Phantom Lady that Shields calls a pivotal piece in Ramos’ career, marking the switch from heroes to nudes. “There are a lot of superheroes in the show, and a lot of nudes, and she’s sort of this hinge,” he explains. “It provides the link to what happens next.”
Phantom Lady (1963) was a transitional piece between Ramos’ superheroes and nudes. (Image courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum)
The Crocker exhibit is also an opportunity to revisit the Sacramento artistic community from which Ramos emerged. He studied for a short time with world-renowned painter Wayne Thiebaud, whom he calls both his mentor and close friend, and has had associations with other prominent Sacramento artists throughout his career, including Fred Dalkey, Gregory Kondos, Roy De Forest, Patrick Dullanty and Jack Ogden.
Thiebaud, interviewed from his midtown Sacramento art studio for this story, tells fond tales of a long-ago cross-country drive that he, Ramos and their wives took to New York City. And then, shortly after the interview begins, Thiebaud seizes the moment to heap praise on his old friend: “I am going to make a very bold statement and say that Mel is a much more important and interesting and greater painter than Andy Warhol. This is somewhat heretical in terms of what kind of preoccupation people have with the Warhol world.”
There are two Wayne Thiebaud paintings on display in the house where Mel Ramos has lived with his wife, Leta, since the late 1960s. The home is in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. The Thiebaud pieces, gifts from the artist, rest on adjacent perpendicular walls of the dining room, which is furnished in dark wood, as are the rest of the home’s public areas. Modest in size, one of the paintings depicts a sundae, the other a half grapefruit, and they overlook a massive set of antique tin toys collected by Mel and Leta. The adjoining living room is decorated with spoils from the Ramos’ travels. For decades, the family has summered in northeastern Spain, in a town called Horta de Sant Joan, where Ramos has a home and studio.
The walls of his Oakland house are covered with art, like the two Thiebauds and a series of paintings by Leta. There’s also an original Franz Kline, a thick black abstract-expressionist swirl atop a page ripped from a phone book. And there is, nearby, a nude of daughter Rochelle, which Ramos painted decades ago when she was 24.
Rochelle, who became her father’s studio manager in 2010, is one of the Ramoses’ three children, all of whom were born in Sacramento. The others are Skot and Bradley. Bradley was born with Down syndrome and passed away in 2010, just before his 51st birthday. Skot is a contractor and a sculptor, and Rochelle a former financial advisor.
“I asked Dad to perfect my flaws, or not paint them,” says Rochelle of her portrait, “but that is not his method. He is first and foremost my dad, who loves me tremendously. My mother was also [at the session] to make me feel more comfortable. So my little crooked toe made its debut in oil paint. I am honored to have the painting of me, and I hope one day, when she is older, that he will paint my beautiful daughter.”
One floor down is Leta’s rectangular studio, where she is in the middle of working on a series of tiny square still lifes of garden vegetables. A single tomatillo rests on her table, its outer casing like nature’s own paper bag. Her painting depicts its veiny shape in rich pastel-like colors. She explains that this room used to be Ramos’ studio, and then opens a second door, which reveals a space that seems as large as the rest of the house combined.
This is Mel Ramos’ studio, and has been since it was added to the house in the mid-1980s. It’s a brightly lit two-story box of a room, filled with prints and books and framed paintings and crates of source material and many tables, each covered with brushes and paper and other tools of the trade. There is a light box, atop which are slides of nude women, and a fully clothed shot from the very same cross-country trip that Thiebaud had mentioned. There is a row of candy bars (Snickers, Almond Joy) sitting upright, their wrappers partially undone—studies for a series in which Ramos’ trademark model-beautiful women emerge from the candy wrappers; it’s something Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket might have dreamed of once he’d outgrown his preteen fixation on Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Against the far wall is a floor-to-ceiling wooden apparatus that allows Ramos to move around his canvas. He is seated on a stool, brush in hand, adding touches to a smiling nude blonde astride an oversized cigar. The woman is modeled after a model: Brooklyn Decker of Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue fame.