Reading Ramos’ ‘Zebra’

Though the true meaning of art may be frequently debated, its ability to elicit thought is unquestionable. It serves to make the viewer aware of something outside of himself or herself or perhaps internally. However, it’s ability to engage audiences has proven a testament to its validity as an art form. One such artist, Mel Ramos, a pop artist of the 1960s, has proven his ability to provoke with his 1970 painting Zebra. The image that Ramos presents us with is one of a naked woman atop a zebra. With this painting Ramos conjures up questions of femininity, humanity, as well as commercialism in this painting.
The question of the representation of the female figure seems to have always been an aspect of Ramos’s work. He specializes in pin-up artwork, which characteristically display the woman in all her curvaceous glory. Although many feminists argue that Ramos objectifies the female population by reducing her to a mere sexual object, this understanding seems too simplistic. Ramos presents the image of the woman with little to detract from it. The background of the painting is a peach color, which off sets the woman’s figure from the background, but does little else to distract. Furthermore, the woman is virtually dead center in the painting. He leads the eye to this bare breasted figure. While it’s easy to understand how it could be viewed as objectification, Ramos’s dedication to the female figure throughout most of his works could also, and perhaps more accurately, be seen as a sort of reverence. His use of the zebra as well as the woman seems to equate the woman with the exoticness of the animal. However, once again, the woman’s position in the painting, atop the zebra so that she is the first one the audience sees, reinforces her importance as the primary figure of the piece. Ramos draws the connection between woman and animal not in an offensive way but relating the two as connected in his and ultimately the viewer’s mind as well.
Although Ramos presents his audience with a clear idea of what femininity looks like, there is little representation of masculinity as a driving force in the piece. Rather, Ramos presents the image of the zebra to draw the relationship between woman and man. That is to say, Ramos views the man as animalistic in comparison to the woman. More importantly, the zebra as the male figure is subservient to the image of the female. Ramos presents his audience with a wild animal that appears to be domesticated by the woman. Another element of the painting that must be addressed in relation to the dynamics between men and women at the time of this painting’s production is the women’s liberation movement, which started in the early 1960s. In this instance, the importance of the zebra is only in relation to the placement of the woman. The fact that she remains dominant, suggests that the reign of woman is to be taken seriously and that the male is lessened by his portrayal as an animal figure. The use of color is also central to the piece’s subject matter. Whereas the woman is recognizable, but barely apart from the background, the zebra is alarming to the eye. In a way, one’s mind almost can’t recognize the two figures as part of the same image. However, by rendering the female figure using soothing colors, the zebra’s colors suggest the displacement of the male population. In a time when women were beginning to be recognized as fully formed sexual beings, just as men had always been, there seems to be this awkwardness in dealing with the male population. Even Ramos’s work typically dealt with nude women paired with commercial products, such as Velveeta. Ramos’s evolution suggests recognition of the male population, personified through the zebra, but an inability to deal with it explicitly, which he admits in an interview with the Smithsonian. Ramos’s pairing of the woman and the zebra, as previously stated, expresses an implicit relationship between women and mankind.
The relationship between Ramos and commercialism is one that isn’t directly connected to Zebra, but is important to his work nonetheless. His connection with the Pop Art movement firmly established him as a commentator on the social and cultural aspects of life. With most of his pieces, he seemed to suggest the connection between women’s sexuality and advertising as one and the same. However, the importance of the female figure, once again, remains unchanged. This piece has the glossy finish of an ad, but Ramos forces the viewer to question what he is selling. The perfection of the female figure and the boldness of the zebra’s stripes strike the eye and seem reminiscent of the vintage ads of Life Magazine. Ramos’s technique seems to suggest that the figures of Zebra are calculated images and his own personal perception of what these figures have come to mean. Although the audience sees the presentation of the women and the zebra, their meaning is never truly defined. He allows viewers to glance at perfection in a time characterized by struggle and re-definition of commonly recognized figures, namely the woman and the animal.
Ramos forces his audience to question the presentation of femininity, the role of both men and women in this time period, as well as the age old adage “sex sells”. He never explicitly tells his viewers his intentions, but the meaning is squeezed out anyway. On one hand, he presents the ideal female form in what some may call an objectifying manner while others may see his worship of the figure. Furthermore, he charges the image with contrast between the woman and the zebra in a relationship reminiscent to the animalistic nature of men and their subsequent domestication. However, his presentation of these figures as almost surreal in their perfection forces the audience to question their true meaning. However Ramos’s presentation of the woman and the zebra is viewed, it is one of unquestionable depth and indescribable meaning.

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