Second Skin

Deadpan and droll, the world of Ed Ruscha revolves around the commonplace

New York--It's not unusual that most of us find great comfort maneuvering in the vernacular. Whether spoken or architectural, the vernacular is familiar, easy, efficient and, at its base, local. It's the slang that gets your order across to the waiter. It's the back road that gets you fastest from point A to B. Total immersion in it brings feelings of déjà vu, as though you've donned a second skin worn in some other lifetime. As a term that operates according to words and community, designating a local tongue and local building customs, it forever unites language and architecture in a shotgun marriage of the cultural nitty-gritty. It's what defines your life as you zoom down interstate highways, careening through rolling landscapes of big-box discount retailers. The vernacular is the stuff of the commonplace. It is also the stuff of Ed Ruscha's art.

Two exhibitions, Ed Ruscha and Photography and Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, both showing at the Whitney Museum in New York City, reveal Ruscha (pronounced "roo-shay") to have the lowdown on the everyday. His photographs and drawings of Los Angelean hotels, swimming pools and parking lots tell so much without ever saying a word. They tell us that the fundamental logic of American architecture and urbanism--what makes for our collective architectural vernacular--is roughshod sprawling growth fueled by the whimsical vagaries of capital, investment and rapid, built-in obsolescence. Ruscha makes no bones about it, moral or otherwise. Certain aficionados of the architecture world might disagree, finding his work merely descriptive of an ungainly, not to mention unsightly, American urbanism--and not the vernacular. As moralists, their definition of the architectural vernacular stems from a halcyon American past that for most of us never was. Their red barns and Main Streets of yesteryear are nowhere to be found in the images of Ed Ruscha, a man for whom the vernacular is piecemeal, but also kitschy and altogether forgetful of any such "authentic" rural or small-town cultural moments, whether invented or real.

Located in the first-floor gallery, Ed Ruscha and Photography is a small show marking the Whitney's acquisition of 456 photographs and photography-related objects donated to the museum by The Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation, Diane and Thomas Tuft and Ruscha himself. Made in the 1960s, the photos illustrate Ruscha's fascination with accidental and unintentional composition, the various and rhythmical forms he found and instigated in everything from labels and billboards to roadside architecture in Europe and at home. The images encapsulate the evolution of Ruscha's interest in the camera and photograph as a medium of expression, from his narrative and documentary images of Europe in 1961 to the sociological and deadpan conceptualist photo-books that he would work on throughout the decade.

Ed Ruscha's "France"
Ed Ruscha's "France"

While the photos trace his shift from heartland native of Oklahoma to slick Los Angelean, there is a stream of drollery consistent in all of the images. It is the consistently wry quality of his work, whether a visual commentary on the heartland, Los Angeles or Europe, that brings home Ruscha's celebration of the homogeneous. For in the homogeneous Ruscha skillfully locates the aesthetic: form that, in these older photographs, beckoned the focus of his camera lens at times for reasons of beauty and at other times for sheer intrigue.

This aesthetic of the everyday and chance combined is present in his photographs of Europe from 1961. After graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), Ruscha set out with his mother and brother on a seven-month tour of Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, such a trip would have been called "le grand tour," and Ruscha would have sketched, painted and measured all of the great paintings and buildings beginning with the Renaissance going back in time to antiquity. But for Ruscha, an artist so hard-bent on the new that he chose to live in L.A. over New York, recording the Parthenon gave way to making chance shots with his camera while roving the European landscape in the Citroën deux chevaux his mother purchased for the trip. While captured on the go, the photos consistently betray Ruscha's eye for balance and composition. In one of the many images titled "France," Ruscha captured in black and white an advertisement for a European gas station, Total, painted on the side of a pitched-roof house. As fast as the click of a shutter, Ruscha artfully collapses space and makes being in the countryside of Europe seem as familiar as being in the proverbial See-Ruby-Falls countryside of Tennessee. Yet "Brindisi Italy," an image of a little girl leaning against a communist poster, shows Ruscha to be equally in touch with the radical differences in politics between Europe and the United States.

Departing from the more expressionistic and documentary style of these images, the photographs of gas stations, parking lots, apartments, Sunset Boulevard and pools illustrate Ruscha's turn toward the conceptual. Starting in 1963, Ruscha began fabricating thin photography books for mass consumption. Calling himself the "Henry Ford of book making," Ruscha claimed that the images were more sociological than artistic in intention. Taking his avowedly anti-art stance to ever-increasing heights, Ruscha employed a commercial photographer, Art Alanis, to shoot the images for Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967). Nevertheless, the images of parking lots, carefully shot from above while flying in a rented helicopter, seem compositional. When accused of taking remarkably artistic shots of parking lots, Ruscha retorted by saying he was above all interested in the oil stains left by automobiles. Yet despite his claim, the oil stains added another layer of form to the series of asphalt compositions, giving a Rorschach sense of abstraction to the De Stijl-esque play of white lines and black backgrounds.

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