Since moving to California in the 1950's from Oklahoma, Ed Ruscha has become perhaps the quintessential West Coast artist. His witty appropriation of text and images salvaged from California's crossed-cultures of laid-back beach life and the high energy Hollywood film scene capture the West in a distinct, colorful and unsentimental way. In Ruscha's work, words become subjects and images become icons. Think of Ruscha's Hollywood Sign, his Standard Stations, his renderings of Route 66, his fold-out photographs of Sunset Boulevard and his great image of the Los Angeles County Museum on Fire.
Brave Men Run in My Family belongs to the artist's Dysfuntional Family Series that came about while Ruscha was watching the 1948 comedy-western Pale Face. In this film, Bob Hope turns to Jane Russell as they are being attacked by Indians and exclaims, "Brave men run in my family" and promptly turns to flee the scene. Ruscha runs this text over the heroic silhouetted image of a great, listing tall ship, which is itself running before the wind. The present work anticipates Ed Ruscha's monumental mural of the same text and imagery at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego completed in 1966 (figure 1).
Ruscha's art is also quintessentially Los Angeleno in a literary sense as well. Distilled into a deadpan, wisecracking persona that would not be out of place in a Raymond Chandler novel, Ruscha's appropriated nuggets of casual language are characterized by a certain tough-guy approach, disdaining subtlety and sentiment in favor of an earthy to-the-point clarity which is associated in American culture with the temperament of both Hollywood (where he made his career), and the so-called Dust Bowl region (where he was raised). Implicit in this alter-ego is the entire chapter of the U.S. expansion westward, with its archetype of modern man confronting the limitless horizons that Ruscha employs as backdrops for his off-handed quips (D. Cameron, Edward Ruscha: Paintings, London, 1990, pp. 13-14).
Figure 1: View of the Ruscha mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.