Edward Ruscha

You’re A Dead Man (Country Cityscapes series)

2001

Medium
Photogravure with silkscreened text
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 457 x 356 mm
frame: 510 x 407 x 37mm
Collection
ARTIST ROOMS
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Artist Rooms Foundation 2011
On long term loan
Reference
AL00295

Summary

You’re A Dead Man is a photogravure print depicting a landscape with snow-capped mountain, pine forest and body of water, partially obscured by four white rectangles. The shapes sit in the centre of the picture on a vertical axis. They are each different sizes and irregular in shape, with some rough edges and capped corners. The work is from Ed Ruscha’s Country Cityscape series of which there are five other examples in the ARTIST ROOMS collection (Be Careful… You Hear Me, Tate AL00294, It’s Payback Time, Tate AL00292, Do As Told or Suffer, Tate AL00293, You Will Eat Hot Lead, Tate AL00296, and Noose Around Your Neck, Tate AL00297, all made in 2001). Despite the landscape scene the work is in portrait format and surrounded by a thick white border, which in turn is bounded by a thin black mount.

Ruscha created the background landscape using photogravure, an intaglio photographic printing process that produces high quality images. The process involves making a relief of the photograph on a copper plate dipped in a series of acid baths. This produces deep wells on the copperplate surface, which hold more ink and result in the detailed print characteristic of photogravure. You’re A Dead Man also makes use of medium weight wove paper – this is the material used to create the four white rectangles.

The title of the series, Country Cityscape, suggests not so much that Ruscha is trying to evoke the rural with this pastoral scene, but that he is highlighting the way in which nature is as much subject to cultural forces as is the city. In this work he alludes to how certain cultural clichés, which originate largely in the hotbed of the city, colour the American landscape. The four shapes on the surface of the print obscure the view of American pastoral scenery but also blank out the cowboy catchphrase of the work’s title: ‘You’re a Dead Man’. The shape of each white rectangle roughly corresponds to the length of each word as if they have been covered up or cut out. In one sense the absent text evacuates the image of the violent threat, suggesting that the blanks be read as bandages for the treacherous landscape of the American West. However, in relation to Ruscha’s larger body of work – which includes many text-based prints and paintings – the redaction also suggest gagging or censorship. The artist has described his use of landscape and text:

A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way, they’re words in front of the old Paramount Studios mountain. You don’t have to have a mountain back there – you could have a landscape, a farm. I have background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks.
(Quoted in Marshall 2003, p.239.)

In You’re A Dead Man, Ruscha goes one step further by evacuating the text and presenting a foreground as empty as the backdrop. It remains ambiguous as to whether the artist is removing the drama from the scene, or highlighting the evacuated meaning of this frequently repeated and parodied cowboy catchphrase.

Further reading
Alexandra Schwartz, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2010.
Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London 2003.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008.

Thomas Flanagan
The University of Edinburgh
November 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.