The present work derives its text from a scene from the 1948 movie The Paleface, in which Bob Hope’s character turns to Jane Russell’s during an attack and exclaims, “Brave men run in my family,” before promptly dashing away. Possessing a binary meaning, the phrase can signify two different and contradictory facts: that brave men appear in a family lineage or that brave men in a family literally run. The duality of this sentence would not have escaped Ruscha, who took a profound interest in semantics. Ruscha also illustrates this scene in other works, in which he runs Hope’s phrase over different images, each backdrop contributing to different interpretations of the text it supports. From the early onset of his career, Ruscha always exhibited a deep-seated fascination with film, so it is no surprise he chose here to appropriate a line from a movie. The artist has stated, “Like everyone else I’m a frustrated film director.” (Ed Ruscha quoted in Exh., Cat., Washington, D.C. (and travelling), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 171) Indeed, Ruscha’s tight focus on the top corner of the porch, yet displayed in such epic proportions, creates a sense of looming, as if the viewer were behind a camera quickly zooming in to this particular ridge of the porch, a motif Ruscha explored in four other paintings in 1996: Ionic, Doric, Porch and Palapa. Brave Man’s Porch is by far the largest and the only one of these five paintings that possesses the phrases and riddles that so amused the artist; it is also an enlarged nearly exact facsimile of Doric, executed in the same year. In all five of these paintings, however, we see Ruscha’s enchantment with cinema in the atmospheric manipulation of the paint. Brave Man’s Porch is undeniably the most dramatic of these five in its crepuscular palette and juxtaposition of stark text against a moody backdrop.
The seductive and theatrical nature of the painting is a product of Ruscha’s first road trip to California from Oklahoma on his way to art school. Together with Mason Williams, Ruscha flew across Route 66 toward Los Angeles where he became a commercial artist. Widescreen billboards of decontextualized words and a constant sequencing of images projected onto miles of the endless expanse of the mythic West personified a unique, contemporary cinematic experience, one that would later inform Brave Man’s Porch, not only in the words used on the canvas, but also in the granular treatment of paint. Brave Man’s Porch also illustrates Ruscha’s frustration with the “-isms” critics were constantly applying to artists. Jaded by the ‘artist as tortured genius’ ethos of the Abstract Expressionist, distrustful of Pop Art and uninspired by the commercial art he initially began in Los Angeles, Ruscha detached himself from these oppressive artistic traditions and instead developed a visual vocabulary all his own. He admired specific works or phases of various artists’ careers, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, yet never fully committed to their prescribed modes. Of his indeterminate style, Ruscha said, “I like the idea that an artist should never be questioned about what he does, because he actually deserves this right of artistic license...I’ve always felt like the number one rule is that there are no rules.” (Ibid, p. 154) Ruscha’s amusingly flippant sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in Brave Man’s Porch, a transcendental distillation of the his unmatched vernacular and unique artistic credo.
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