Ed Ruscha: Standard
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, review by Siofra McSherry
LACMA’s retrospective of Ed Ruscha opened with the kind of party only Tinseltown knows how to throw, a red-carpet Art + Film Gala attended by Hollywood’s A-list. Ruscha is held very dear in Los Angeles, and this new show makes clear why. His cinematically scaled paintings and wry lithographs celebrate the landscape of the Southland and chime closely with the self-referential, ironic tone of its cultural life. The exhibition’s title, Standard, is a play in resonance, from the cheerfully blatant in the Standard Gas Station lithographs, to undertones of the medieval flag, the political standard bearer, and the standardization procedures of typography and cinema.
As the gas station motif suggests, Ruscha’s work obsesses over the car. From the short film Miracle (1975) dealing with the mystical experience of an auto mechanic and the Blank Signs of the 2000s, to the famous Thirtyfour Parking Lots reproduced here as a series of prints, the automotive age is central to his work. The experience is central to the landscape of Los Angeles; the British critic Reyner Banham joked that he learned to drive so he could ‘read Los Angeles in the original’. The proportions of his thin rectangular Hollywood canvases - a classic example is shown here from 1968 - resemble little so much as the view in a rear mirror. Standard Oil station appears in its many variations looming above the viewer, from the perspective of a car seat. Even more recent paintings, such as the enormous The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003), display the low-rise, flat-roofed commercial architecture from a low angle, as if one were driving past.
That other notorious feature of LA, the billboard, deeply informs the work on display here. California’s lax laws on billboard advertising led to the massive graphic imagery proliferating throughout the twentieth century. Their outrageous scale and marketing word-play are echoed and mirrored in many works here. Ruscha explores the humorous potential of such massiveness, as in Actual Size (1962), where a billboard-sized SPAM graphic is juxtaposed with a spam packet carefully painted in its actual size.
Billboards are monuments with a minute lifespan, torn down in a matter of weeks. A related theme of transience, decay and loss runs through the artist’s work. Letters appear out of folded paper or drops of water briefly revealing simple, commercial-sounding messages such as ‘Made in California’. Even the transience of cinema is represented in a painting of a scratchy split-second image of film, The End (1991). In a quiet series of sketches, the Hollywood sign is shown to slowly decay and crumble. The artist’s sympathies with the Pop Art movement are obvious, although here, exhibited in the midst of the commercial smörgåsbord that is downtown LA, he is arguably something of a realist.