Glen Rubsamen’s paintings of locales around the Los Angeles region, which are selected using a conceptual schema based on virtual mapping, combine idealized images of landscapes pared down to essentials, and a sense of detached irony. Visually reminiscent of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of Los Angeles and the West—but without the conceptual text-based play or the monumentality and horizontal scale, they rely on clichés of Los Angeles to reproduce a kind of iconography that is familiar and, like Ruscha’s, cinematic: palm trees (and the occasional eucalyptus) and vast expanses of sky, rendered in heightened, lozenge colored hues. Rubsamen’s paintings, exhibited at Christopher Grimes Gallery this summer under the title “The Disguise Was Almost Perfect,” are accompanied by a poster sized map, available as take-away, adapted from a hand-drawn 1915 Automobile Club map of the region, on which the artist has overlaid graphics of his paintings push-pinned to their correlated location.
Rubsamen’s use of virtual mapping as a means of interacting with the city and its outlying areas, and the automobile as the primary mode of navigating the distances, generates tension within his project between the virtual and the embodied, as well as the factitious and the factual. Google Street View is the first step in the process of selecting sites as subjects for his paintings, though his work seems to skirt the urban core of Los Angeles, revolving around its semi-urban and suburban periphery and more distant semi-rural areas. Within this process, it is not entirely clear whether the destination points that he travels between (by car, using surface streets exclusively), based on routes mapped on Google Street View, are selected randomly, or at what point the artist’s volition comes into play in identifying sites as subjects (as opposed to the surfeit of territory that escapes the audience’s final viewing), though it seems clear that visual characteristics are important criteria.
Equally important, Rubsamen’s rearrangement of the facts—the objects that comprise a scene, and how they are arranged, place his paintings within a set of formal concerns regarding the relation between figure and ground.
Under the guise of this somewhat aleatory, semi-documentary-style, Rubsamen visits sites and photographs them. He engages in establishing the views as quintessential visual symbols of LA, yet he subverts that iconography by generating scenes that are rather pedestrian and seem generic, as if they could represent nearly any location with a tree, or a cell tower that looks like a tree, or roadside billboard. There are exceptions to the anonymity: the windswept vista of Magic Mountain (2017); The Disguise Was Almost Perfect (2015), a rendering of Mark Di Suvero’s Venice Beach abstract public sculpture Declaration (1999-2001), which somehow resembles an oil derrick; Randy’s Blue (2017), a giant donut atop an Inglewood shop; or the not entirely realized (but in Rubsamen’s painting, already completed) Imperial AT-AT Walkers of Disney’s Star Wars Land ride in Moulage (2017). But these paintings, too, have a post card quality about them, and the anodyne scenes, banal for their anonymity, give his paintings a sentimental cast.
The remove of his approach, the cool palette—skies painted in Easter egg lavenders, bubble-gum greens, mints and pinks, with color shifting in a gradient from one edge to the other—and his way of representing a site as artifice, with forms distilled to essential shapes, adds to that anonymity.
Within Rubsamen’s project, his paintings have an oddly dissociative effect; they do not entirely embody the process or the concept of this project. But they do something different. They add a layer of interpretation, or authorial intent, and his paintings conjure questions about the underlying grid, reflected in the artist’s conceptual schema. They pose questions about how the viewer understands the city. They are related, in a sense, to the actual site, yet they are removed, as if based on a dream.
The virtual mapping in his process might have moved this project in another direction, of documentary rather than pictorial. Interestingly, Ruscha engaged in a similar kind of multi-pronged production, with his paintings counterpoised against his conceptual photo books, such as Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966), and two others.
Other artists have addressed the use of street views and satellite views, which also seem related to Ruscha’s photo books and Rubsamen’s project here. Jenny Odell’s work addresses the overlap between data, photography, mapping and virtual space. Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture” culled images from Google Street View to locate economically forgotten neighborhoods across the country.
Ruscha’s photo books, instrumental in photography’s use as a conceptual strategy and as a way to organize visual information that is coded in various ways, as opposed to his paintings, create an taxonomy of Los Angeles based on an inductive, empirical methodology.
His mode of maneuvering through the city by automobile and taking photographs from a camera mounted in the car speaks to the city as dominated by the automobile. Robbert Flick as a related successor to this mode of working, in his “Freeway” series, creates compositions that have interesting confluences with Ruscha’s work, but Flick’s final pieces are composed of highly curated still frames shot from a high def, high speed video camera, to a visually poetic effect.
Rubsamen’s paintings position a mythology of Los Angeles consistent with the notion of the West as an expanse of endless sky, sprawling development, and an informality of organization and structures, communicated through a kind of cinematic shorthand that encapsulates a particular notion of Los Angeles—deep skies, towering palms and twilight effects. Rubsamen subtly destabilizes that myth, and one is left to wonder what can be seen by panning the camera, earthward, away from the sky.
Christopher Michno is a Los Angeles area art writer and the Associate Editor of Artillery. His work has also appeared in KCET’s Artbound, the LA Weekly, ICON, and numerous other publications. He is also an editor for DoppelHouse Press, an LA based publisher that specializes in art, architecture and the stories of émigrés.