The iconic 1966 image Standard Station by Ed Ruscha sets the navigation compass for the variety of artists’ responses in the show Regarding Ruscha at the McNay Art Museum. The Standard Oil service stations of the past provided a rich array of services besides gasoline: an actual attendant put air for your tires and water in your radiator, washed the windshield, checked the oil, and offered Green Stamps, or free glassware and dish towels. Even more importantly, he could provide roadmaps and directions. It was all part of the standard service.
Once, night-driving in the Michigan wilderness, my phone couldn’t download the image of the map around me. My dot was there, but where was I? Human perception of space has changed greatly as we rely on devices to navigate our way through the day. As Colin Ellard explored in his book, You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall, we all differ in how we think about space, environment, and the process of making mental maps for everyday directions. The book spans public parks to architecture, and explores ants’, pigeons’, birds’ and sea turtle’s methods of navigation, and, of course, navigation by stars. But now we have a disconnect from the natural world, and maybe, as in the case of this exhibition, a GPS disconnect to the meanings of Ruscha, but unfortunately without all the services that used to come with a full tank.
The artists’ responses to these two iconic Ruscha images are not unlike what has become of my fragmented GPS roadmap. Each takes a snapshot of a place, but doesn’t give up a whole. There are many dots in this show, and some maps too, and when the signal is strong you get both.
The most direct homage to Ruscha’s pieces, Chris Sauter’s Support Structure, is a drawing of a large sign, much like the sign in Standard Station, seen from behind, in reverse. Instead of “Standard” it spells “Masculinity” as if to confront, and at the same time reveal, the macho of a service station (and maybe even Ruscha’s work). Support Structure has a full share of the irony that is often in Sauter’s work, but the piece is a reassuring navigational ping, locating them in relation to what Ruscha did with both Standard Station pieces.
Striking through, as if censoring the text in Ruscha’s work, Jeremiah Teutsch’s Cityscapes: Give My Regards to Ed Ruscha provides you the dot but not the map. The strikethroughs appear as building blocks, creating a sense of skyline, but not a Ruscha sunset to point you west.
I know where I am on the freeway by mileposts. Whether receding or gaining, they indicate how far I have to go to get to the beginning or the end. Ethel Shipton’s Exits (2014) gives you both: crossing the Texas-Mexico border, it’s only one mile between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. The definition of space by mile markers is exactly the compartmentalization of geography Ellard writes about, and that Shipton explores.
The only piece in the show that utilizes map imagery is Amber Pinzon Wilcox’s We Lean Forward (2014), a drawing on a vintage map of Oklahoma featuring the noble bison found in collaged postage stamps with the logo of Buffalo Gasoline creeping in, stage right. The logo screams collectable, the stamps probably are, and the whole piece has has nostalgic undertones, which is never part of the Ruscha map, other than he is from Oklahoma. Unfolding a service station roadmap was always easy; putting it back together was not. Like some sort of conceptual origami, We Lean Forward unfolds Ruscha’s ideas and assumes that you can put them back again.
The most important concept of this exhibition is that it showcases Texas artists as a way of demonstrating that what is “local” can be “national” and even exist on the same map. The chance to mix it up and offer the same precious wall space to various media, disciplines and talents without the containers of “international”, “national”, and “regional” that act as roadblocks in other venues is the show’s most refreshing reward. It should be a standard.
Regarding Ruscha will be on view a the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio through May 17, 2015.