Last week, I was invited to stop by Naimar Ramirez’s studio/apartment to take a look at her latest body of work, Pretty Girls, which is now on view at Fresh Exhibitions Gallery. Ramirez led me up the stairs of her apartment into a small living room, the comfortable little room housing her altar to mindful obsession: a foam core reliquary of “pretty girls.” In the box, she’s built shelves which hold trays of trading-card sized images of women transferred onto wood. She calls them her “ladies.” Ramirez’s ladies are ripped from the pages of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and made over with full faces of acrylic make-up. They’re traced and rubbed, dampened and waxed, buffed and cleaned until they’re shiny. Ramirez takes good care of her girls – and then she reproduces them in open editions, replacing copies with copies. In describing her ladies Ramirez told me, “The first time I showed them … a lot of people came up and asked me if they were the same person over and over again.” I wonder if there’s a metaphor here?
These 364 pieces are the result of over two years of Ramirez’s work, which began during a period of depression. After failing her first graduate review, she locked herself in her bedroom for days, finding comfort in the tedious process of transferring images of women over and over again, examining them and letting her mind wander. What started out as a mixed bag of transfers of the same model from free Savannah magazines became an almost obsessive documentation of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, a magazine that prides itself on parsing down feminine identity into its most lucrative distillation. As Ramirez’s process became more refined, the subtext of her images began to diffuse.
What is more culturally charged than gallery walls sprayed with sexy portraits of women? If (art) history tells us anything it’s that nothing elicits the profound and wondrously obtuse critique of the public like feminine sexuality. Pretty Girls is no L’Origine du Monde, but the crushing volume of its works (364 total) call for – at the very least – an acknowledgement of our media’s shameless commodification of female sexuality. Ramirez advises that this theme be handled carefully: “[Pretty Girls is] not about saving women, or about not objectifying women. Objectification is something that’s going to happen all the time for an endless amount of reasons. It happens in photography, it happens in the arts all the time.” While her objective with this work may not have been one of strict social commentary (Ramirez admits that she has purposefully left the work open to interpretation), you can’t deny that strong work provokes strong reactions. Pretty Girls may not be about “saving women”, but its subject matter demands a conversation about the cultural consequences inherent in the mass consumption of these types of images.
Ramirez is correct in pointing out that the women objectified in these images are models — handsomely paid ones at that — who know exactly what they’re signing up for when they pose for Victoria’s Secret, Sports Illustrated, etc. However, the message communicated by the photos is clear: these women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own. All gender is a performance and any good performance demands research: if you were a young girl would it be a stretch to assume that your first introduction to the endless performance of womanhood might be on the movie screen, on a billboard, or in the pages of a magazine? Like Ramirez’s ladies, the women that populate our contemporary media circuit represent a homogenized, unrealistic, and often absurd cross-section of manufactured and carefully curated womanhood. The images Ramirez has torn from the pages of her catalogues weren’t simply created to encourage consumption, they are images of consumption — of the boxing and selling of a very specific sort of identity: that of the “pretty girl.”
What’s a “pretty girl”? For Ramirez, the description “pretty girl” has little to do with aesthetics and much more to do with a societally enforced archetype. The “pretty girl” is compliant, she doesn’t have career goals, she is a mirror for the accomplishments of others. She’s cute, dainty, — whatever Victorian ideal has been surreptitiously entrenched in the popular culture of the moment. (Don’t believe me? Here you go.) This girl doesn’t exist of course; she’s just the ghost of backlashes to feminism past, present and future — a ridiculous goal of womanhood that ignores the complexity of women as actual people. Ramirez’s Pretty Girls are coated in layers of splashed acrylic “make-up” and encased in shiny encaustic, a visual metaphor for the silencing of women in both popular culture and fine art. Despite the age of Ramirez’s ladies, (all in their early to mid twenties), they are still just “pretty girls”, totally lacking in individual identity.
I asked Ramirez what this show might have looked like if it were called “Beautiful Women.” She paused for a moment before answering: “I have no idea. I would be afraid. I feel like you couldn’t live up to the title.”
Pretty Girls urges us to think carefully about how women are represented and consumed in popular media and about the consequences of those images for both women and men. To those who might dismiss the idea that images have the power to mold expectations and ideals — this show is for you. Where does your idea of “pretty” come from?
The exhibition is on view at Fresh Exhibitions until July 12. Below is a transcript of my full interview with Naimar Ramirez.
Kayla Goggin: So these are the ladies.
Naimar Ramirez: These are the ladies. I have 13 trays of 28 which gives us 364 total.
KG: Was there a particular reason you chose 364?
NR: Well, there were going to be 365 in the beginning and then I brought them down to 336 because I was gonna do 12 sets, like a calendar. I was gonna do 12 big ones and then the respective 28 each but then I built the model and started playing around with positioning.
If you look at these they’re not all the same but they’re mostly the same model. They start to look different and then they start to look the same as the next one. The first time I showed them they were a mix and a lot of people came up and asked me if they were the same person over and over again. I thought that was interesting so I kind of separated them.
Each [large image] goes with its respective grouping. Part of why I wanted to make them so big is because from far away you can see detailed lines and the play of the ink, but when you get up close you start seeing what looks like pixelation but its actually not: it’s actually the printing process of the magazine. You can see the pattern on the [girls’] cheek — those are the dots of ink from the catalogue.
KG: These are all from the same kind of catalogue? Where are these from?
NR: Yeah, everything is from Victoria’s Secret.
KG: Was there a reason for picking that particular one?
NR: I started making stuff in this vein a long time ago, probably my first quarter at SCAD. I didn’t have TV, I didn’t have internet, I lived in a studio apartment by myself. So I needed something to take my mind off the horrible stuff I was doing because it was kind of sad. I’ve always been into very tedious kind of involved work.
KG: Do you lose yourself in it?
NR: Yeah! But then I start freaking out about it so I need something stupid and mindless to separate myself from what I think is the serious stuff (which ends up not necessarily being that serious.) I was using really bad, free Savannah magazines like Skirt and pictures from Do and pictures from any free thing I stumbled onto just walking down the street. They were mostly the same ad and the same lady over and over again and some of them weren’t appealing at all.
KG: Appealing in what sense?
NR: The ad wasn’t appealing, the model wasn’t appealing, what I was doing to it wasn’t appealing. There was no excitement to it whatsoever. One of the thoughts [I had] was to bring it into the everyday. So I started spilling coffee onto them and tracing out the coffee (some of these still have coffee as a stain) as something that would play around with what was happening in the original picture, blow off and suck into the paper in different ways and create a pattern basically. Then I moved [to my new apartment] and like everybody who moves into a new place, I started getting all the mail from the previous people who lived here, especially catalogues. We received a ton. So I started playing with those. Especially during a really tough time I had in school: I failed my first graduate review so I locked myself up in the house for three days and made the first 50 of these.
KG: So you just knew this was going to be the next project?
NR: Not really, I just wanted to take my mind off of failing and not think about the new project I was going to have to start in a month in order to finish my masters. So I locked myself in a room, watched Hulu and made girls for three days straight — working until 7 in the morning, sleep the whole day and doing it again. And I started liking it a lot and playing with it more.
KG: It’s interesting to me that there is this element of obsession in your process because these images are so evocative of that in themselves.
NR: Yeah, it’s very much about obsession and the image itself and sort of recapturing the image. I came to school for photography but I have a very complicated and not always very happy relationship with photography.
NR: It’s always a power play, it’s always objectifying, it carries its historical baggage and there’s a lot of bad historical baggage to go with it.
KG: Especially when it comes to women as a subject.
NR: To women, to others, to colonizing, to [displaying a] kind of safari of people..
Looking at these [images] like a tribe and analyzing their facial features through the use of photography and measurements to define their intelligence.. There’s a lot of good and a lot of knowledge that comes from photography but, like everything else in the world, it’s been used for evil a lot and I feel like a lot of people don’t think about it. It’s not something that plays into their minds, their works, their way of shooting – and that’s fine. But I can’t separate myself from it. So, knowing that there’s an absurd amount of images in the world and that we share an unnecessary amount of pictures — everything is covered with imagery of something else — and having that bothering me a little bit, I still can’t stop myself [from shooting] and I know I can’t stop myself so it’s not like I’m judging anybody else for doing it. I’m obviously doing it a lot.
KG: Doing it and consuming too. ‘Cause there’s so many of these. It’s consuming in the sense that they’re consuming space and these are also images of consumption, these are images of the commodification of women, of a certain sexual identity..
NR: After I made the first bunch I couldn’t stop really and the way that I work is I do something that’s kind of tedious and repetitive so I can let my mind wander and think about other things — sometimes about what I’m doing and its relevance, be it conceptual or material – just its purpose, why am I doing it? Why am I not doing something else? My personal reasons, my social reasons, my artistic reasons all come together and roll around, bumping into new things in my brain while I’m doing this, doing the same movements. When I work on these, I usually make a line of production. I cut all my paper at the same time, get at least 50 -80 pieces of paper ready, then I sit and do all the transfers one by one, peel ‘em off, let ‘em dry, scrape ‘em off, make ‘em pretty.. There’s a lot of rubbing that goes into this process which is also kind of creepy.
It can be looked at as being about a lot of different things. The line of production kind of talks about obsession, repetition.. Those are things I’ve always kind of related to photography. This work is not photographic on my end, but it’s very photographic because I’m literally pulling off of reality (the magazine).
KG: They kind of become like icons.
NR: Yeah, they also go into like religious connotations of icons, like having little prayer cards – today’s prayer cards, not necessarily the icons of back in the day. And in that way they work into the whole calendar idea of having a saint for each day.
KG: You can have model for every day, a different woman for every day.
NR: The collection aspect I was really excited about too because, you know, it’s not something that I think is avoidable. It’s gonna happen with whatever because people like to have things, people like to have certain things, people like to compete to see who has the most of a certain thing.. So I thought it fit with the whole idea of collection, and photography itself. Art. Whatever. Everything is about collecting, about having, about owning and it’s also very much about original versus reproduction. All of the 364 ladies have their reproductions printed.
KG: So they each basically have a trading card.
NR: Yeah, so that if you buy one of the originals you take it right off the wall, take it with you and it gets replaced by its reproduction. So it’s always changing but staying the same too. The reproduction is also an original, it’s real, it’s something you can take.
KG: I want to get into the subtext behind this work. Do you consider this a feminist work?
NR: I don’t know.
KG: Is that something that you’ve thought about?
NR: In passing. It could be considered that. I’m not even sure how to answer that question. What is a feminist work?
KG: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
KG: But that doesn’t necessarily make this a feminist work?
NR: It is, in a way but it’s not only that. That’s one of the thoughts that’s feeding into the craziness. If by calling it a “feminist” work you mean I’m calling out the male objectification of the female form – whatever. [The models] are not being obligated to do this. They’re really fucking rich models who are doing this willingly and enjoying it. They’re probably the highest paid models, they’re known worldwide. [I] took a road trip to a friend’s wedding and was sitting in the hotel room one of the nights watching a late night talk show and then these three Victoria’s Secret models come out as I’m sitting on my bed working on my ladies. I was like “Oh my god! I’ve got those!,” and I spread them all out on my bed and tried to pick out which one they were. I held up like five to [my friends] like, “Can you help me? Can you tell me which ones they are?”
KG: Was it confusing because of what you had done to the prints or because they just look similar when you have so many of them together?
NR: Both. Separating these into 13 different categories was super hard.
KG: That says a lot about the standard of beauty in America.
NR: Yeah. It’s like.. Depending on my mood I can tell them apart more. If it’s a fleeting glance sometimes I can tell them apart better than if I’m looking at them. I go face blind after a little bit.
KG: Yeah, if you look at them too long you just see the similarities.
NR: It’s not about saving women, or about not objectifying women. Objectification is something that’s going to happen all the time for an endless amount of reasons. It happens in photography, it happens in the arts all the time. Something gets displayed as whatever the person who’s picking it out wants it to be and then it means that rather than what was intended. If it’s something that’s enjoyed then whatever. If nobody’s suffering for it then there’s no problem.
KG: So you’re just leaving it open to interpretation.
NR: Yeah. the question is still gonna be there and I’m not gonna solve anything by doing [this]. I’m making them into portraits, face portraits, ignoring the rest of the body in most of them and pulling them from an underwear catalogue. But that’s it. They’re still being objectified even when they’re not necessarily in that context.
KG: I think it’s kind of unavoidable considering the nature of these images. These images have no choice but to be sexualized.
NR: They don’t. You get a catalogue every couple months and it’s delivered to your house even if you haven’t ordered it – it keeps on coming and they come at you from everywhere. The delivery of a catalogue is the most invasive thing.. [The ladies] are all super sexualized and it’s something that I am kind of highlighting in a way. They’re all super rosy, they all have super red lips, they all look like they just came out of a make-out session. I’m making them up as the model would be made up before the shoot, so I’m still treating the little transfers as models that I’m turning into exactly what I really want [them] to be. So it’s repeating the process – not to insult it, but to show the absurdity in it.
KG: It does feel a little bit like satire because they’re so overblown. Some of them literally and some of them figuratively. Like you’re specifically pointing out how lascivious this all is.
NR: Yeah, and then in the everyday also. That’s what make up is designed to do – make you look flushed and rosy like you just had an orgasm. Everything is about being perfectly in the moment of complete ecstasy. So by doing it to these already overly sexualized images I’m hoping people will look at it and think about something..anything. I’ve thought about so many things when making them, if [viewers] can take one of my seventeen possibilities then that’s fine.
KG: It really does seem like this is incredibly open to whatever interpretation – if you wanna look at it as a feminist work of art, or a work about advertisement, feminine identity, the commodification of female sexuality – it can be all of those things at the same time. Or just visually interesting considering the sheer volume of work you have here.
NR: A shitton of pretties.
KG: How long have you been working on this?
NR: Well I started about a year and a half ago. Maybe a little more than that. That was the start of the female transfers, but I started playing with them like two and a half years ago.
KG: Did you have a criteria for what images you were going to use? Or were you just picking whatever you were drawn to?
NR: I started out having very specific picks but then I was running out of images. So I would pick out a bunch from a catalogue and then pick out a bunch from the next catalogue that came out and then put it away. And when I felt like I needed to make some because I was gonna freak out over something else that was happening or, in this case, because the show was happening and I needed to finish – I would pull them out and do a second and third round. Also, my mood is always very complicated in relationship to people and to where I am.. It bounces back and forth a lot. So looking at them a second or third time I’m like, “Why didn’t I pick this one? I’s so perfect. What’s wrong with me!”
I wouldn’t be doing this with any other catalogue, and I wouldn’t be doing it if this wasn’t happening. But it’s still just a thing that happens. Men get objectified too, but looking is fine.
KG: Would you say that it’s the same degree to which women endure?
NR: That it happens in the media? Of course not. There’s no Sports Illustrated swimsuit male edition. It’s something that a lot of people have written about and commented on and it’s a real situation but it’s not like they’re innocent parties.
KG: Right, they did sign up for this. They understand what they’re going into to some degree —for these specific photos at least. I found one quote I wanted to get your response to and see what you thought. There’s a famous actress who said, “Every women wants to objectified.” What do you think of that?
NR: Not necessarily every woman, but most women want to feel pretty which is why you get objectified usually. Objectification is related to either beauty, exoticism or a particular kind of something.. And yeah, of course everybody wants to be beautiful but you don’t want to be demeaned in that process. You don’t want to lose yourself and everything you aspire to be or work to be just for “pretty.” That’s why I chose that title for the show, because it is kind of demeaning. It’s making everything tiny and cute. “Pretty Girls” — they’re fucking grown women.
KG: I was curious about the title. Why “girls” and not “women”?
NR: ‘Cause there’s so many of them. “Oh, she’s just a pretty girl.” Also, it’s kind of demeaning to get called a girl when you’re a thirty-something year old [woman]. “Oh, she’s just a pretty girl.” and “just a pretty girl” is a very commonly used term. And it’s always limiting.
KG: It’s limiting and it says nothing about individual identity at all.
NR: And it is very different from “beautiful woman.” “Beautiful woman” is not usually demeaning — sometimes it can be, surprisingly, but it’s really rare. “Pretty girl” is just… there’s nothing more to it.
KG: What would this show look like if it were called “Beautiful Women”?
NR: I have no idea. I would be afraid. I feel like you couldn’t live up to the title. What does it mean? Who gets left out? What beauty are you presenting? What cultural aspect are you presenting? Where is that beauty from and what is it related to?
KG: Because “beauty” has a connotation of being unique whereas “pretty” is just a homogenous cultural ideal.
NR: In a general way, yeah.
KG: That says something about the women who are represented here. Not necessarily about them, but the way they’re being shown to you.
NR: And dropped into your house.
KG: Dropped into your mailbox. Whether you want it or not: here it is. I think another thing that should be addressed is that so many of our ideals about feminine identity or female sexuality come from the media which encourages women and girls, through images like this, to self-objectify and evaluate: is this sexy? Is this pretty? Is this good enough? And I think these images are perfect for capturing that.
NR: I think everybody falls into that in one way or another: either you want to be super pretty, wanna be beautiful, or you want people to know you don’t give a shit. I feel like I’ve been on both sides. You just have to understand that everybody goes back and forth.
KG: Because a real identity is much more complex than a “pretty girl.” I think this work comes at a great time in the social climate, too, because right now a huge topic in the media is the objectification of women, misogyny and what that means for our culture.
NR: Yeah, but it’s always a topic. It’s never anything that anybody does anything about. It’s something that’s talked about often; people know it exists. It’s like racism— Yeah, oh yeah racism is a problem. OK. Can we say it’s a problem and just stop being stupid or is that not an option? It’s going to be a thing for a really long time and it’s always going to a thing that we talk about.
KG: No end in sight?
NR: That’s why this is here. Yeah, talk about it some more. Oh this whole thing bothers you? Cool. Why? Why does it bother you? Oh, it bothers you because it’s true? Oh yeah, I know!
KG: Do you want to tell me a little about your supplemental event? Your workshop?
NR: We’re gonna be doing a transfer workshop. We’ll do different types of transfers and learn to do a transfer without really needing a surface, like using gel medium. The point of the workshop is to show enough possibilities so that [transfers] can be integrated into any medium – it can work into sculpture, painting, photography and you don’t necessarily need a photograph to start, you can use any kind of image. You can use text, web-based images, your own photographs, whatever you want.