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  • Michael Onwutalu

The Perils of Place

Ed Ruscha’s liminal gas station holds up a mirror to campus.

By Michael Onwutalu

Illustration by Hart Hallos

Exactly a month after I arrived in New York, I found myself face-to-face with a gas station. A painting of a gas station, that is: standard, its colors a mélange of light blue and red, but its composition disrupted, made nonstandard, by a magazine. I’d seen it before, yet I was transported, for some 30 seconds, to standing in line in Bush Intercontinental, awaiting the start of the remainder of my life. Rest stops are a manifestation of the liminal: at an interregnum, one succumbs to the pre-destinated suspension of being everywhere and nowhere; which is all to say I was, for that brief and ecstatic half-minute, suspended between everywhere and nowhere.


ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, at the Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 13, 2024, had been on my radar prior to coming to New York and to Columbia. Ruscha’s early pop shares what critic Nicolas Calas refers to as the movement’s “cool attitude,” except his work possesses a heightened absurdity, a deceptive lightness. His show, encompassing over 200 works and six decades, abounds with the purest of national iconography: four-letter words (a ‘HONK’ here, a ‘SPAM’ there) austerely placed on thick backgrounds; animals that stoke a sense of the surreal; a series of stains. 


The gas stations for which Ruscha is best known hew to a distinct vision of American wanderlust: An 18-year-old Ed Ruscha pilgrimaging the Route 66 of Kerouac’s On the Road and The King Cole Trio’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Like Ruscha, I was moving, and as such, was made a casual observer of those images: the iconic, austere, surreal, serial. The gas station that so transfixed me was Ruscha’s “Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half” (1964). The artist, ever-epigrammatic, seems to say: The standard is singular, the standard suspends. Consider our meeting a predestined suspension.


I remember arriving to Columbia after months of anticipation to inhabit this place, these blocks spanning 110th and 122nd where everything feels like everything. However, I experienced paralysis when faced with the school’s very placeness during orientation. I moved within the confines of my room and repeatedly asked myself, “Is this it?” as I found everything I needed in white tents a few yards from Furnald. Even with the expanse of 120th and upwards, conferred from the first week of classes in the form of Teacher’s College and the International House, that suffocation du jour still felt inveterate.


That first week gave way to a night-time trip with a friend to the Apple Store that unexpectedly became an escapade. We headed to Central Park for no other reason than just because; I witnessed rats for the first time; we stopped at street benches and listened to the traffic nocturne; we receded to the confines of our overactive minds as we spoke about everything from James Baldwin and Theodore Dreiser to Kelela; we made our way back to campus after getting lost in Central Harlem. Dwelling within New York was exhilarating. Any remembrance of my relation to Columbia faded away as the smell of trash entered my nose, my eyes scanned the aged brownstones, and the patois floated around my ears—a diasporic mating call.


Contrary to popular belief, there’s an artifice removed when in movement—when scaling an area, a place, a condition. Ruscha’s exhibition, an eclectic, dizzying motley, required uncomfortable sobering. Plastered words grew terser the more of them you saw; the places were remote, isolated, quintessential; and Ruscha, forever self-referential. I proceeded through rooms and decades, bore witness to states of torpor and disorder. I began projecting motifs from my own campus life onto the works: equivalences, motifs my mind could latch onto. My “Standard Station” was JJ’s; my “Jumbo” (1986)—a hazy, grayed elephant climbing upwards—was me climbing eight floors of Schermerhorn stairs; and “The End” (1991), exactly what it says, was nowhere in sight. 


“Oh boy, my first visit to New York was a total shock,” Ruscha notes in a 1980 interview. “I was thrown back by the coldness of it. I didn’t know anybody there. I remember I was just overwhelmed because of the number of people there and the impersonality of the whole place.” Replace New York with Columbia and you have something so familiar to me it’s unsettling. Though in New York, Columbia is not New York; it’s taken me some time to realize that. I’m more myself and at home when off-campus, where I’m untethered—a nomad, however démodé. Coming, staying, leaving. I’ve been making strides to define a place at Columbia, but my incredulity refuses. The more I travel outwards—north and west, south and east—my arrival predicates a leaving: This was never it.

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Bennie Manning
Bennie Manning
May 13

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