There's no denying that Los Angeles painter Ed Ruscha is one of the preeminent artists of the past half-century. But do I have to like him?
In his signature works, he treats words — "Air," "City," "Mint," "Made in California," "Annie" — as cool, ambiguous still lifes, rendering them as trompe l'oeil strips of paper, puddles of water, or graphics floating over mountains. His painting is impeccable, but he makes the relationship between words and meaning go kablooey. This intentional nonsense bores me.
The title, "Standard," of a mini-retrospective with too many prints and too few paintings organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and now on view at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, comes from prints depicting a Standard gas station. He renders its clean, modern architecture in iconic one-point perspective, as if it stretched for blocks and soared to the sky. He puns on the brand: here's our standard for America, for good and for ill.
When Ruscha plumbs the meaning of his words like this, when they underline sardonic observations of America, things begin to get interesting. In a pair of paintings, a blocky black-and-white factory goes bust and the building gets recycled into a "Fat Boy" big-box store under a flaming sky. The end is near.
"ED RUSCHA: STANDARD" | Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St, Waltham | Through June 9 :: 781.736.3434 :: brandeis.edu/rose