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Car Painting

Ruscha's car-based art, which never features people, offers a lonely, melancholy view of our American society

By Novella Carpenter

I AM HAUNTED by a painting I saw years ago in Seattle. It was dark and smeary, but definitely showed a big Hudson or a Studebaker chugging through a ribbon of road curling into some hills. Why did it move me? I can only say it sucked me in, as good art should, and it made me feel kind of melancholy, even though there I was, at an art event, a glass of free chardonnay in my hand and prospects for bread and cheese on the horizon. The painter's name escapes memory (something with a Z?), but the image is still strong. I wished I'd had the $1,500 to buy it.

I hadn't thought about that painting in awhile, until I read an interview with L.A.-based artist Ed Ruscha in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. In it, Ruscha claimed, "I'm into the iconography of the country—street stuff and word stuff and highways and ribbons of asphalt. Someday, I would like to read Socrates while stuck in the traffic on the Hollywood Freeway." He went on to say Abstract Expressionists were into American imagery and, certainly, cars. As much as I squint my eyes, though, I still can't see a car in the chaotic swirls of the movement's most famous practitioner, Jackson Pollock, or any of the other artists flying under that flag. But Pollock did die in a fiery car accident, so maybe his work anticipated this end.

Ruscha's paintings and photos span the 1960s to the present. Pop artists of his era chose to stop depicting nature or man, instead turning toward pop icons. Ruscha's work often features gas stations, car parts, parking lots and maps. One of his most famous pieces, Standard Station, is a lesson in uniformity, using the straight lines of a cartoonlike perfect gas station. The photos from his art book, Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, are aerial views of deserted spaces.

Ruscha's car-based art, which never features people, offers a lonely, melancholy view of our American society. His work has been described by art critic Deborah Solomon as "a little like viewing the horizon through a dusty windshield."

Whereas painters like Ruscha depict sad desolation, a visit to my local museum introduced me to Robert Bechtle, a photorealist whose subject matter is primarily cars and street scenes. Most of the paintings are so realistic, you can't tell they aren't photos (indeed for many of them he did use photos as guides for painting, leaving out only a few of the details to make them his own).

Marin Avenue—Late Afternoon features a stucco house with a late-'70s land yacht parked out front. It seems to nudge the question: "This is the American dream?" A painting called Jetta 2003 shows us a suburban tract neighborhood with a Jetta's boxy back in the left-hand corner of the painting, cater-cornered to a classic car under a car tarp. The hopefulness of an older car under wraps meeting a new upstart somehow resonates.

His most famous painting is 1961 Pontiac, which features Bechtle and his squinty-faced family posing next to their station wagon. Simultaneously a condemnation and a celebration of suburb life, 1961 Pontiac aches with a nostalgic longing. Most of the viewers of his work have experienced these moments of being connected, deeply connected, to a car, as an icon of growing up, of stasis, of blandness.

His choice to name most of his paintings after cars—including his largest painting, '60 T-Bird, which is 8 feet long—reflects Bechtle's belief that the car represents the essence of the American experience. It's no coincidence that both artists were educated and still live in California—Ruscha in L.A. and Bechtle in San Francisco. During the 1960s, car culture was becoming the dominant one here, as highways and suburbs were built at a feverish pace. This must have had an effect on both men's lives.

I can't help but look at art and wonder, Will it last? Will the people of the future look back at this push-pull orbit around pop objects, especially cars, and feel utterly sorry for us? Guess we'll have to wait; in the meantime, these paintings certainly are beautiful.


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From the August 17-23, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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