When Roland Barthes wrote his groundbreaking Mythologies in the mid-’50s, the idea of turning loose the tools and techniques of philosophy on such things as wrestling matches and Citroën cars was still quite novel. Since then, not only has the once-dark continent of consumer culture been thoroughly illuminated by the searchlights of theory, it has internalized their glare, becoming itself a kind of self-consciously semiotic construction. In this collection of updated mythologies originally penned for the LA Weekly’s art column, Ralph Rugoff trains his sharp and incisive gaze upon those areas of everyday life where symbolism, design and aestheticization have completely displaced utility, and representation has come to precede the so-called real. A kind of dialectic is ventured between articles detailing the incursions of the new, and those more concerned with the disappearance of the old. For instance, the opening section on the West Coast proliferation of such postmodern hallucination engines as Sea World, Alpine Village and the Universal CityWalk, is followed by an appreciation of the few remaining signs of precisely the industrial culture these theme parks are busy supplanting. Above all, Rugoff appears to be fascinated with the increasingly pervasive cultural tendency or drive to somehow frame, remove and reproduce whatever might be considered significant experience. Appropriately, the subject of museology figures prominently in Circus Americanus, and it is explored through a series of highly pointed collections, assembled around such men as Richard Nixon, Liberace, Gene Autry and L. Ron Hubbard. Other topics of interest are nudist magazines, cosmetic surgery and forensic photography. An article on the Mexican art/sport of lucha libre declares the abiding influence of Barthes’ pop semiotic, but from there on in, Rugoff is alone in his Brave New World of mini-golf courses and thematic funeral homes.
Paperback: 204 pages