Ed Ruscha and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’


The set decoration does some talking in the trailer to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Universal movie based on the best-selling novel by E.L. James about an erotic taste for bondage and discipline, ironically being launched on schmaltzy Valentine’s Day. The decor prefigures what is to come in the narrative.

Young Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) first meets shrewd business mogul Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) in his sleek and imposing skyscraper office. She’s there to conduct a newspaper interview. When she takes a seat in the vast and chilly room, hanging on the wall behind her is a painting that shows two sailing vessels listing in the wind, dramatically poised to slide right out of the frame.

One ship is large and the other small, both shown in shadowy silhouette and plying an open sea. Avast, ye mateys, let the adventure begin!


Whether this is an authentic painting by Ed Ruscha or merely a pastiche of one I cannot say. Ruscha made 10 different versions of silhouetted sailing ships between 1986 and 1988. The painting shown in the movie looks like “Brother, Sister” from 1987.

But I did laugh out loud when, among more than 46 million other viewers of the official trailer on YouTube, I saw the sailing ships show up. The painting is all gray, keyed to the steely palette of the protagonist’s office.

Not to mention keyed to the color of his business suit, the dress worn by his icy blond secretary and of course his titular surname. In fact, as a diaphanous, airbrushed silhouette the painting is more like, well, 50 shades of grey.

The silhouette series arose from Ruscha’s interest in making paintings without any visible brushstrokes. He used an air gun to paint them, deftly putting yet one more standard technique in the commercial graphic designer’s toolbox to fine-art purposes. With conceptual double takes wrapped in consummate skill, Ruscha has been doing that for more than half a century.

In “Brother, Sister,” the smoky tones are applied to a buccaneering, vaguely predatory image of exotic adventure in uncharted waters. Talk about foreshadowing. Apparently the movie’s art director and set decorators were paying attention.

I confess, though, that I wish Ruscha had once made a dusky silhouette painting that shows a field of corn. Now that would be a movie I’d want to see.

Twitter: @KnightLAT