Thursday, May 30, 2013

Family Symbolism in Ed Ruscha's Standard?

I recently participated in a "Close Looking" conversation at the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University) on their visiting exhibition of Ed Ruscha's work, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, led by Joe Wardwell and Andreas Teuber and facilitated by the Rose's education director Dabney Hailey. We talked at length about Ruscha's 1966 painting "Standard," or "Standard Station", one of the postwar era's most familiar (and widely reproduced) works of art, and the work from which the exhibition's polyvalent title  ("Ed Ruscha: Standard") is derived.

Ed Ruscha  Standard Station, 1966.
We talked about the 'drive by" quality of the image, the ways in which one could read the image as glimpsed from a vehicle speeding by on Route 66. We also touched on David Bunn's observation that "there are no landscapes without bodies"-- given that in this landscape there are no evident human bodies. But then a colleague creatively observed that the five fuel pumps could in fact be read as a stand-in for human bodies, comprising  a nuclear family of two parents and three children. The two larger pumps on the right could be read as parents, the three smaller pumps to the left (separated off from the 'parental' pumps' by a support pole) in turn could be read as children. The far left pump lacks a (presumably phallic) hose, and thus could be read as "Mother", while the large pump next to it has a pump and thus might be read as "Father"; in turn, the next, smaller (child?) pump lacks a hose and thus could be read as "Daughter", while the final two smaller pumps each have hoses and thus could be read as "Sons."  Thus another possible resonance to the overarching sign about the pumps, "Standard": this is indeed the normative, idealized American nuclear family.

For those in a Lacanian frame of mind, the hoses could be read as instances of the Phallus, signifier of masculine agency within the context of the modern domestic sex-gender system--all the more appropriate given the deep cultural linkages between automotive travel, corporate industrial might, and fantasies of American masculine mastery.

This reading intuitively strikes me a quite promising, and it would be interesting to know what Ruscha himself would think of it. (In interviews, he has noted that the widely interpreted association of the sign "Standard" with the normativeness of dominant American culture is not one he had been consciously aware of while creating these works, although he is open to that line of interpretation.)

 I am tempted to speculate that there might even be an implicit linkage within this image (and the many variations on the theme Ruscha has created) between biological reproduction and the reproductive capacities of the commodity sign in a capitalist context.  Here we may have a protoypical modern, "standardized" family in which the parents have reproduced themselves in the form of their children, at several different symbolic levels.  Each of the pumps, after all, sports the name and image of "Chevron" the most famous product of the Standard Oil Company. Under the modern schema of commodity aesthetics it is in the nature of one brand to beget another, ultimately subsuming all human experience under the arch-signifier of the endlesely-fecund commodity fetish. Thus, direct representations of human bodies would be superfluous in such an image: the logic of reproduction under modern capitalist conditions is entirely enframed with the capacity of the brand emblem ("Standard", which appropriately spans the scene) to spawn subsequent iterations of itself under subordinate brand emblems ("Chevron"); hence, we have before us the perfect family under modern capitalism, waiting, as it were, to glimpsed, and desired, by other families speeding along down the very highway made possible by the petrochemical industry.