Ruscha reigns as king of the average tourist shot

By Italia Patti

The curator’s statement that greets visitors to Ed Ruscha and Photography states, “Although Ed Ruscha has consistently resisted the label of ‘photographer,’ the medium has been a resource, a vehicle, and a catalyst for his art.” After spending a few moments looking at his photographs, it may occur to viewers that this was more a warning than a mere description. There are some skillfully shot photographs in Ed Ruscha and Photography, currently on view at the Art Institute, but Ruscha does not engage with the medium of photography as well or as interestingly as he engages with other media. For the most part, the photographs are well composed, but uninspired—and uninspiring.

The composition of “Venice, Italy,” for example, is well balanced and contains lines that lead the eye to the focus of the photograph—both important elements for a successful photograph. Ruscha probably took the shot from the window of a tall building, because the scene captures a perfectly-shaped cluster of people below. The line formed by the shadow of a building and the glimpse at the building’s façade fills the upper right corner, adding texture to the scene.

“Valencia, Spain” is also from the group of photographs from Europe and is just as well composed. The photograph shows a trolley car; lines formed by the tracks, background buildings, and crossing gates lead into the trolley car and keep the viewer’s eye moving to constantly reveal new points of interest within the scene.

But really, the collection from Europe is a group of photos all visitors to Europe take; in this case they are shot by a skilled but uninspired photographer. Though it’s somewhat exciting to see skillfully rendered shots of familiar scenes, it’s not nearly as exciting as seeing someone who loves photography build a relationship between the subject, photographer, and viewer, or stretch the medium to its limits with creative angles, innovative techniques, or keen observations.

The photographs in Ruscha’s book Some Los Angeles Apartments are on display in the next room. In the photos, Ruscha clearly aims to emphasize pure documentation and the impersonality of photographs. (The curator’s commentary says as much.) The book does the job much more successfully. Emphasizing the impersonality of an art form that puts a machine between artist and subject is easy, and so it is difficult to be much impressed by Ruscha’s success. He does, however, succeed in his aim, taking anonymous, commonplace photos of street scenes.

“1018 S. Atlantic Blvd.”—with its cool gray sky, shadows, wires intersecting with lines on the street, and a peek of a car on the right edge—is a photograph intriguing enough to catch the viewer’s attention, but not intriguing enough to keep it. After an initial study of the execution of the formal elements of photography in this photograph, there is little to make the viewer linger or puzzle over it. They just seem like source material, which they are. Although they become little more than photographs on white pages with a stark two-tone color in book form, the book elevates them to worlds beyond what they inhabit when simply hung on a wall. Something about the slightly tongue-in-cheek presentation and the act of flipping through the book makes them not just a comment on photography, but a more difficult and intriguing comment on society.

The still-life photographs of products are the most clever and interesting pieces in the show. They show consumer products shot alone against clean white backgrounds. The curvy, clear, glimmering bottle in “Rubbing Compound” commands the attention. However, these photos, which could have been the best of the bunch, suffer from some technical failings. The photographs are all too dark. The bubbly letters in “Spam” do not pop out as they should, because they are a shade of gray rather than a bright white.

The most recognizable photographs are those which became the source material for his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations—a collection of those photographs and captions indicating their locations—and most famously, the screen print “Standard Station.” The photographs have neither the starkness nor the whimsy of Ruscha’s screen prints. So these photographs, too, come across as good photographs, but not great ones.

Some of Ruscha’s screen prints are on display in the exhibit along with his paintings. And in the room of what Ruscha himself admits are his more serious endeavors, one finds all the whimsy, creativity, and engagement with media that his photographs lacked somewhat.

The punnily titled “Double Standard” is the clearest example of those elements. In it a large blue “Standard” sign soars behind a Standard Gas Station rendered in crimson, white, and navy. The sea-foam hued “Cheese Mold Standard with Olive” showcases the artistic spirit lacking in his photographs.

There are paintings as well. “F House” depicts an inviting house in muddled blue tones with pine trees, light-filled windows, and a pretty path leading to it. In the middle of the canvas floats a mysterious red “F.”

And that is what is missing from the photographs in the show: a red letter F floating in the middle of an otherwise just well composed piece, inviting viewers in, demanding that they think awhile about the artist’s intention, and offering them something other than just a nice scene to take away.