Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

A California paradise of the mind

Fine Arts

Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, discusses "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," on exhibit in the de Young Museum's show Ed Ruscha and the Great American West. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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At the age of 78, Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha is operating on all creative cylinders. A show of his new work is slated for London this fall, and Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, an exhibition of nearly 100 prints, drawings, photographs and paintings, just opened at the de Young Museum. Though not a retrospective in the purest sense, the Fine Arts Museums' show covers over a half-century of this prolific artist's engagement with the changing Western landscape, especially LA and California, and encompasses his focus on the culture, iconography and mythology of the modern American West and its hold on the romantic imagination.

The exhibition's title might well have been On the Road with Ed, seeing as one of Ruscha's early inspirations was Jack Kerouac's seminal novel, which he read in 1958. In 2009, Ruscha used his own photographs and curated others to illustrate the author's original text for a limited edition, leather-bound book that's on display. Anomie, rootlessness and alienation are the less-appealing aspects of Kerouac's footloose ethos, but the sights Ruscha absorbed traveling both on Route 66 back and forth from his childhood home in Oklahoma to art school in LA, and on the three-hour drive to a studio retreat he built in the Mojave Desert in 1976, have informed the prevailing motifs that have characterized his work throughout a long, productive career.

The crisp, minimalist exhibition installation overseen by meticulous organizing curator Karin Breuer suits Ruscha, whose cerebral work does more to tickle the intellect than quicken the pulse or touch the heart. Associated with the Pop Art and Conceptual Art movements and influenced by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, the visual vocabulary of Southern California and the movies, he's perhaps most famous for his rendering of words superimposed over landscapes like "A Particular Kind of Heaven," part of an expanded large-scale triptych commissioned by FAMSF for the opening of the de Young in 2005. In the central panel of this 1983 panoramic painting, on view here, the words of the title, in white capital letters, hover over a waning yellow, big-sky sunset, a narrow strip of cerulean blue Pacific Ocean undulating at the bottom of the frame. It evokes an endless horizon and a California paradise of the mind. In other similar works, the phrases he deploys express frustration with traffic congestion or the desecration of Native American territory, suggesting disillusionment and paradise lost. But the intersection of words and text, conceptually interesting at an earlier juncture, don't deliver the excitement they once did. More effective are his ruminations on the throwaway culture of bullet-ridden road signs, sagebrush and detritus seen in "Psycho Spaghetti Western #5" (2010), a wide, horizontal painting in which an exploded tire tread and a packing box have been abandoned on a rocky, weed-strewn embankment on the side of a desert highway.

His striking prints and paintings of the Hollywood sign have a vividly cinematic quality. Perched on a hill, the symbol of erotic allure and dream-factory glamour that has beckoned and led many to ruin is positioned against electrifying, fiery-crimson Technicolor sunsets and hallucinatory, sometimes apocalyptic backdrops. A dense indigo night descends on a desolate "House of Hollywood" (1982-86), and in the color lithograph "Landmark Decay" (2006), the sign is sliding into oblivion down a barren stretch of scorched red earth.

Ed Ruscha, "A Particular Kind of Heaven," 1983. Oil on canvas, 90 x 136 1/2 in. Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Copyright Ed Ruscha

The Saturday mornings Ruscha spent as kid watching black & white cowboy serials at the local theater clearly made a big impression on him and contributed to some of the movie allusions in his work. The grayish, blurry, silhouetted images of buffalo, tipis, howling coyotes and wagon trains trudging through the foggy dawn, for example, seem to recall a vanished Old West mythologized in wide-screen Hollywood Westerns. As if to drive home that association, the surfaces of the canvases are stippled and marked to look like damaged celluloid.

He began photographing gas stations in 1962 and shot 100 that lay between LA and Oklahoma City for his 1963 photo essay/book Twentysix Gasoline Stations. The same year, he did his first painting of the subject, "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas" (1963), a brilliant rendering in one-point perspective whose stunning clean lines epitomize bold modernist architecture. A midnight sky meets the bright red-and-white Standard logo at the top of the structure, creating an oblique angle that juts into view at the forefront, a "zoom factor" that appears in multiple works. A sparkling, All-American, red, white & blue temple designed to lure drivers to the pumps, the station looks so immaculate you could eat off the pavement. Did filling up ever pack this much visual drama? It's enough to make you want to hop in a car and drive back in time. Later, in dreamier incarnations like "Station 2003," the mundane roadside destination becomes a black oasis in the fading sunset.

In the 1960s, Ruscha traversed the back streets and roadways of LA in his truck, expeditions that led to photo essays such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which indeed included every single building on the famous boulevard, shot on film and compiled into an accordion-style book. But his excursions into photography, while technically proficient, aren't in the same class as his paintings and prints. One of the revelations of the show is how gifted he is at printmaking, a pursuit he evidently loves; the Fine Arts Museums has acquired 450 to date.

The exhibition concludes fittingly with The End, a section featuring that universal message in Gothic lettering announcing that the fantasy – the world, the relationship or the movie – is over. Some may find hidden meaning in the half-dozen prints and acrylics depicting those definitive words, but the titles say it all: "The End," "Dead End," "The Final End," and last but certainly not least, "The Absolute End," where the bars of what could be a jail-cell window cast ominous, deep blue shadows on a cold, hard floor. It's a chilly, fatalistic scene Hitchcock could love.


Through Oct. 9.


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