Artist Mel Ramos hunched over a drafting table in his home studio in the Oakland hills on a recent afternoon, working on a sketch of a voluptuous naked woman lounging atop a giant cigar. He was smoking one himself -- standard studio procedure as he paints, draws, talks.
"My favorites are the Robainas (cigars)," the 76-year-old Ramos said between taking puffs and drawing breasts. "Can't get 'em here, so I stock up on 'em when we go through the Barcelona airport."
Cigars. Women. Commercialism. That's his thing. There's the occasional superhero figure, but his work usually involves well-endowed nude women embracing human-sized Coca-Cola bottles or emerging from larger-than-life Tootsie Roll wrappers, suggestively peeled back like rumpled sets of sheets. The effect is akin to Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" but a little bolder and a lot naughtier. More like Venus popping out of a cake. A cake at the Playboy mansion.
These flirty oil-on-canvas treats -- most of which we can't show you in the newspaper -- have served Ramos well since he started painting in the '60s as a student of Wayne Thiebaud. He quickly became internationally known as a contemporary of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and is now revered for his once-shocking images that often had feminists "on my case," he said.
These days, the still-prolific artist's work seems pretty tame -- yet striking as ever. And several of his works can be seen at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland through July 28 in an unusual show called "Pay It Forward," a collaboration with Gabriel Navar, one of Ramos' former art students at Cal State East Bay.
Teacher and student
Navar, who lives and teaches in the Santa Barbara area, first took a class from Ramos in 1991, then later became Ramos' studio assistant and friend. Navar's slightly surrealistic take on computer-centric culture reflects the energy and color of Ramos' work. But the true inspiration came from Ramos' work ethic and discipline.
"The respect he has set aside for his career -- that's what I want to emulate," Navar said.
The Oakland show is a visual tour through their longtime mentor/mentee relationship. And "Gabriel is a worthy torchbearer," said Woody Johnson, co-curator of the Oakland exhibit and longtime friend of Navar's, who says it's quite a coup for an Oakland gallery to host some of Ramos' works.
"I was surprised (Ramos) agreed to do it," Johnson said, considering Ramos' schedule of upcoming shows. "And the wild thing is, he's our very own; he just lives up the street. Hangs out with his family, has coffee on College Avenue," Johnson added. "We're honored to show his work."
Dressed in an old T-shirt, his hair a tangle of steel gray, Ramos looks more like a mechanic who just rolled out from under a chassis than a world-renowned artist. Yet he just came off a major solo show in Vienna that he calls the highlight of his career. And a retrospective of his work runs through mid-October at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, where Ramos lived and taught for many years before moving to the Bay Area nearly two decades ago. He also has an exhibit in Berlin this summer -- hence the four new paintings and several drawings currently in his studio.
"That one's still wet," he said, pointing with his half-smoked Robaina at the image of a curvy woman, typically au naturel and cradled in a giant martini glass. Another work hanging on his studio wall shows a woman resembling actress Pamela Anderson, who modeled in his studio, arriving in a stretch limo with makeup artist in tow.
Leta Ramos, his wife of more than 50 years and an artist in her own right, doesn't seem to mind her husband's figurative fixation. For one thing, she was one of his models for his early work.
"And he's still with me, isn't he?" she joked, puttering away in her own studio on another level of the house.
Because of his depictions of lovely ladies caressing various commercial products, he's dealt with some trademark issues over the years. As recently as the early 2000s, lawyers from Coca-Cola sent him a letter saying they didn't approve of naked women in conjunction with the Coke bottle.
"I sent 'em an email back saying that the painting they were complaining about was done in 1972, and the statute of limitations on copyright is three years," he said. "Here they were contacting me 30 years later. Plus, it was the Coca-Cola company in Germany that was sponsoring my show that included that very painting. After I told 'em that, I didn't hear from them anymore."
Ramos is not totally happy with the way his work is often described. He says it's OK that he's usually lumped in the category of pop art, but he has a much more complex view. At the same time, he doesn't seem to take it all too seriously.
"I consider myself an unreconstructed figurative surrealist painter," he said, removing the cigar from his teeth for that mouthful of a line. "I was fascinated by Dali when I was 14. I like the idea of incongruous relationships, a beautiful girl coming out of a banana, that kind of thing."
Whatever you do, don't call him a pinup artist. He doesn't like that. It's not that he's against pinup art, he says, but it's just not what he's about.
"When Picasso and Matisse painted a naked lady, it was called a nude," he said with a shrug of resignation. "Mine? They call it a pinup."
What: "Pay It Forward," with works by Ramos and Gabriel Navar
When: Through July 28
Where: Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., Oakland
Info: 510-465-8928, http://gabrielnavar.com/mel_ramos.htm
What: "Mel Ramos: 50 Years of Superheroes, Nudes and Other Pop Delights"
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Info: 916-808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org
Hometown: Born in Sacramento; now lives in Oakland
What: Internationally known pop artist
Education: Studied art under Wayne Thiebaud at Sacramento State