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

Second Skin

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.

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.

Located in the second-floor gallery, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is bigger than the photography show but by no means exhaustive. Titled after a pithy description by the artist of his process and technique, the show is well-curated, as it truly brings home the role of graphic design in Ruscha's oeuvre. The show is also useful because it explains the role of the artist's focus on drawing individual words, scripts and fonts over the last 35 years. It reminds us that graphic design has been a preoccupation of the artist's going back to his training at Chouinard, which was notably the training ground for Disney illustrators. The show makes seamless what has up until now appeared to be a choppy shift in focus and predilection on the part of the artist. The curator, Margit Rowell, masterfully succeeds at this by using the work of the artist rather than heavy dogma in the form of plaques or wall text.

While perhaps most famous for his brightly colored Pop-style screen-print from 1966, "Standard Station," Ruscha has been drawing individual words and phrases--such as "Squirt" (1967), "Hollywood" (1968), "Satin" (1971) and "Dirty Baby" (1977)--in various scripts using a variety of materials, from gun powder to blood, for years. Upon first blush, these smoky, atmospheric drawings seem to come out of nowhere, especially when compared with the flat object and commodity-oriented work of "Standard Station" and the photographs on view in the gallery below. With this exhibition, however, Ruscha's work, his evolution as an artist, appears continuous, as the drawings of everyday words clearly come out of the artist's same fascination with the everyday landscape. From the architectural to the spoken vernacular, Ruscha's interests and delight remain constant throughout. What distinguishes these works from the photographs, though, is Ruscha's clear indebtedness to American painters of the past. Ruscha's adept drawings of floating paper in "Blank Book With Coffee Stain" (1973) or the peculiar perspective and foreshortening in "Worm" (1973) show him to be an inheritor of a long-held tradition of illusionism and trompe l'oeil going back to the 18th century with John Singleton Copley's reflective shiny table in his portrait of Paul Revere, and to the 19th century with any number of the paintings by William Harnett or John Frederick Peto. As did these painters, Ruscha struts his stuff as an artist of verisimilitude, drawing words floating in space as though seen from amazingly foreshortened vantage points.

Ultimately, the two shows at the Whitney reveal that Ruscha is at once fun and funny, an artist who makes jokes on the sly by way of framing the obvious. They also show him to be quite an accomplished craftsman: a fabricator of form and idea who never loses sight of the inherent communication found in the commonplace--that there's something about the regular and everyday so often instantly recognizable. As a Los Angelean, his work goes over remarkably well in New York. Perhaps this is because there is always something oddly universal about the vernacular no matter where it might be--something immediately recognizable yet surprisingly idiosyncratic about the local.


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