As I strolled through an exhibit of Ed Ruscha’s work at the de Young Mueum, I fell into a mood that was at once melancholy and humorous. Although the curator’s descriptions of his paintings and photographs emphasized Ruscha’s connection to western landscapes, roadways and cities in California, I myself actually felt absorbed into a world existing nowhere in particular. The exhibit’s repetition of images and words drew me closer not to California or the West, but to open spaces existing in no-place and at no-time. Instead of the western United States, what I experienced in these paintings was the evocation of a vacuum of nothingness.
This reaction was particularly powerful when viewing Ruscha’s “Standard” Paintings. Ostensibly depicting a single gas station, the initial canvases are done in simple, straight lines with red pumps and a sign that juts outward to the left:
However, one’s mind is progressively moved away from the initial clean, modernist rendering itself toward an increasing void as, in successive paintings, the station is consumed in flames:
then rendered in dark shadows, as though the station is now burned out and charred:
until finally fading to nothing more than embossed outlines with no color at all:
If you just focused on the initial image, you might think that it was intended merely as a neat and tidy modernist representation of a service station. It is only when viewed in the context of the other paintings that you experience the progessive destruction of the initial image’s cleanliness, rigidity and control; as though you were watching still shots from a movie about impermanence. The gas station slips away, and what initially seemed comforting and solid is gone, leaving nothing but an outline of an absent entity. In me, this elicited both a chuckle and a shudder. I chuckled in response to the clever way the artist drew my thoughts from something-ness to nothing-ness, while shuddering in the presence of the resultant void.
Throughout the exhibit – from stark, linear representations of streets, to bleak paintings of box-like industrial buildings – a mixture of humor and melancholy continued to bubble up in me. I think it was the recurring juxtaposition of straight, simple lines against bleak, dark emptiness that provoked this response. On the one hand, the linearity of the paintings suggest stability, order and structure. On the other, this same linearity helps to highlight the open blankness of the backgrounds over which the lines and angles hover. Perhaps it is this incongruity that was the source of my ambivalent reactions to other Ruscha pieces such as “Hollywood/Vine”:
Appropriately, the last paintings in the exhibit were renderings of the words “the end.” The ambiguity evoked here was manifold. Certainly, there was the literal sense in which the exhibit, at this point, was now coming to an end, but there was also the broader reminder that all things must come to an end. The vertical lines on one piece – evocative of scratches inscribed on celluloid film stock – make viewers think of the end of a movie, or more generally of the end of the use of film in the digital era:
The apparent rustiness of a “dead end” sign suggests the end of the road; or perhaps the decay leading to the end of life itself:
And the final piece in the exhibit, “The Absolute End,” signals not just the last painting in the exhibit, but leaves viewers with thoughts about the complete end of everything:
On my way out of the gallery, I checked myself to verify that I still existed. And yes, as far as I could tell, I was still there. However, as I walked through Golden Gate Park, back to the car, my attention kept being called to the backdrops of things; the spaces against which the trees, cars, flowers and the people around me made an appearance.
I chuckled and then shuddered.