What’s worse than walking miles to the gas station after running out of gas? According to artist George Hughes, it’s the reality that there never was a gas station in the first place.
His September 2, 1961 cover, “Out of Gas,” confuses viewers with a befuddling logic problem, a dark joke, and a sad situation one hopes never to encounter.
A realist painter, Hughes incorporates the awe-inspiring vastness of the southwestern American landscape into the story he paints. The surroundings are empty in a borderline surrealist manner. The scope of the desert is immense. The empty blue sky adds to the scene’s sense of total isolation. The large composition’s horizon line trivializes the two human forms to enhance the distance they have already overcome.
Understanding this cover takes some quick logic to work out the predicament. The two men walk the same unending road, hoping to find a gas station. Assuming the next gas station was closer than the last one they had passed, the two men set out ahead of their stalled vehicles in search of an oasis. Unfortunately, as the two men meet what might by several miles down the road from their cars, they realize they assumed incorrectly. They must return from whence they came, and start the journey for a gas station over in the opposite direction.
Hughes picked the exact moment the two men stop in their tracks to realize their horrendous choices. The artist even painted a dried out skull of a dead animal by the side of the road. This simple reminder hints that, while funny, a dehydrating situation is no laughing matter.
Even the title of the illustration provides a quirky, yet insightful pun. Not only are the vehicles out of gas, the men are too. The figures are slumped in hopeless desperation. One man dresses in the casual attire of vacation, the other in white-collar workday clothes. The day hasn’t gone as planned for either one.
George Hughes had a talent for connecting with his audience through humor, and viewers typically enjoy his work because they identify with each painting’s message. One might not ever actually walk the wrong way to a gas station in the desert, but we all face agonizing mistakes we regret when we’re already running on fumes.