Ed Ruscha: Standard
Years ago I learned that if you wanted to be a good photographer you should study the work of other artists, not fellow photographers. Paul Strand once went on a trip to Europe to see every Piero della Francesca painting he could find… in order to become a better photographer! Paul Strand. If it was worth his time certainly we can do the same. Besides, who doesn’t want to be inspired by artists who do things we cannot do?
The current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ed Ruscha: Standard offers a great opportunity to flex your mind as a photographer, and look at some great photographs if you just need a fix. The exhibition is filled with several rooms of Ruscha’s work, including two rare video works from the 1970s, and more prints than you could shake a stick at. Among heaps of inspiring works, there is a group of lithographs that can teach us as much about photography as the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition on view in the next building over. I’m referring to a series of L.A. landmarks that the artist created as thought-provoking art by using simple words and lines. These images describe the California landscape without looking at it. They include both iconic and mundane references to place: Pico, Flower, and Figueroa for example, or an overview of Santa Monica, Melrose, van Ness and Vine, just to name two examples. The images are lithographs, made of little more than words and lines—and tell us as much about the geography of the modern Los Angeles as many photographs do, perhaps more. They encourage us, as photographers, to identify what we see (Pico Boulevard and Flower St., for example) and ask ourselves if we remember what it is that we have seen at these places, assuming we have a relationship with them to begin with. If we don’t, all the better… you might wonder what Ruscha was so intrigued by and go see for yourself. In the case of another work: “st. and ave.” we’re encouraged to think about the representation of landscape when it is boiled down to an abstract representation, that of temporarily ascribed names and places by a political entity (us, the u.s.) who currently possess the land, if you believe that’s possible. All of which is enough to make us consider place, the people who inhabit these places, and perhaps offer enough encouragement to get out and describe these places ourselves. Am I suggesting Ed Ruscha did an incomplete job, waiting to be filled by an aspiring photographer? Definitely not. Am I suggesting there is much to learn by looking at the work of a living legend who uses photography as one of many tools? Definitely so.
The exhibition contains a suite of 30 parking lots (yes, photographs) included as an essential part of the artists work, suggesting that we, as Photographers (with a capital “p”) might learn to be a little more loose. When was the last time you sketched a photographic idea? It’s a great exercise you should really think about. Ruscha’s photographs invite consideration about how we got where we’re standing… is that lot we parked in today the same one in his image? Is the building we’re standing in adjacent to one of these parking lots we’re now looking at? Do they still exist in their current (pictured) state, or are they artifacts of a time now removed? Photographs are a great tool to describe and invite ideas. They make a viewer wander and wonder. Just before looking at the show I watched a perfectly good building in Los Angeles meet the jaws of death, literally being ripped apart wall by wall in preparation for another (arguably more profitable) building. The ‘old’ building dated from the 1980s. It was a reminder of the very short life span that dominates architecture in Los Angeles, and it was a well timed primer to view these now beautifully framed parking lots. How do we as humans build the architecture of the land we call home? Are we more concerned with beauty, geometry, or convenience? These images by Ed Ruscha remind us of the importance of urban engineers, road pavers, architects. They make us see our everyday spaces from a different point of view, literally. They encourage photography.
Medium is committed to furthering ideas like these and encouraging dynamic dialogue with photography. Both are an essential part of living as photographers and expanding our roles with the evolving medium itself. I encourage you to go take a road trip north, burn a little standard oil, and treat yourself to some art while you’re at it. Ed Ruscha: Standard is on view through Jan. 21, 2013.