Ed Ruscha: Standard
There is probably no artist more synonymous with Los Angeles than Ed Ruscha so it was fitting that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently feted him with a solo show titled Ed Ruscha: Standard. Comprised of works derived mostly from their rich permanent holdings which contains some 300 examples of this senior artist’s practice, we caught this exhibition at LACMA where it coincided with the star studded 2012 Art + Film Gala, but if you missed it there, you can view an abbreviated version at the Rose Art Museum, in the Boston area. Part of Brandeis University, the Rose was mired in controversy in 2009 when in order to ease financial distress, the University decided to close the museum and sell off its permanent collection valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Thankfully, in the face of incredible public outcry as well as a legal decision, the University reversed its decision and saved its collection; it has supplemented this presentation of Ruscha’s work from LACMA with works from its own holdings, which is one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England. With a career spanning sixty years, Ruscha is universally recognized as one of the most influential artists working today with his reach extending to graphic design, film and architectural theory. The works presented in Ed Ruscha: Standard confirm the artist’s singular ability to take the signs and symbols of everyday life – gas stations, billboards, commercial packaging, street signs – and transform these quotidian items into iconic emblems, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Ruscha was born in Omaha in 1937 and moved west in the 1950s at age 18. Although historically he has denied that his adopted city of Los Angeles influenced his practice, recently he admitted the city “leaks into” his work such as in an eight-colour screenprint of the Hollywood sign sitting as a golden beacon of hope atop the darkened hills which he sets against an ochre sky. Certainly his subject matter over six decades – low, flat-roofed buildings, Sunset Boulevard, gas stations, teal blue swimming pools – betray his West Coast surrounds. And Ruscha’s subject matter has embraced the architecture and objects of everyday life from the start, prompting critics to ally his early work with the Pop Art movement. Actual Size, 1962, is a good example of why: in this canvas, the artist renders the yellow bubble letters found on the packaging of a can of Spam. Underneath, he replicates the can of Spam at “actual size”. The show derives its name from a 1966 screenprint titled Standard Station which features the gas station with its bold red architecture bearing the white block capital letters that spell the petrol station’s name like a billboard in the blue sky. The drama of the work is undeniable with the structure cutting a bold diagonal from top left corner to bottom right, slicing the picture plane in two. The subject matter is classic Ruscha: an image of a gas station incorporating text. But the deeper appeal is in Ruscha’s’ ironic commentary on American life: “standard” is a word which suggests the authoritative version against which other attempts are measured, while simultaneously connoting something basic, boilerplate, and boring. He is big on puns and double-entendres.
Influenced by his time doing layout in an advertising agency, much of Ruscha’s work is text-based and he uses words as subjects both for their meaning and their form. Viewers must consider these dual aspects to get the full meaning of the work. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” the artist has stated. And that’s exactly the effect his text-based paintings have as words vacillate between their linguistic function and their graphic treatment. Sin/Without, 1990, is a black and white oil and acrylic on canvas painting in which the three letters float in a majestic sky. Light emanates from behind the clouds in a manner reminiscent of annunciation paintings in which the Holy Spirit is represented by a beam of light. In The End, 1991, the text of the title appears as if in the finale of a movie with the letters spelled out in a serif font, streaky as if captured on old film. Made in California is a serigraph which contains just the three words of the title that Ruscha has rendered using a limited three-colour palette; the sunny, saccharine yellow-orange of the work, coupled with the bulbous, plastic letters which seem to be melting under an invisible sun conjure California in an instant. The economy of means by which Ruscha is able to convey meaning and his precise coupling of form and content is nothing short of remarkable.
Described as having “the coolest gaze in American art” by the late novelist J.G. Ballard, Ruscha’s facility across a variety of media including painting, photography, printmaking, drawing and film is astonishing and seeing so many of his works gathered in Standard really highlights his wry, deadpan sensibility which permeates regardless of his chosen media. There are only eight paintings on view in the presentation at the Rose but it hardly matters – it’s an opportunity to realize that Ruscha’s works on paper and photographs are equally as compelling as his canvases. A long-time favourite of ours is his Parking Lots, a series of black and white photographs the artist shot in 1967 (but printed in 1991). Capturing his subjects overhead from a helicopter, the car parks hover between representation and abstraction with the white lines delineating parking spots forming graphic grids; they are dotted with oil spots like tiny Rorschach ink blots. Through Ruscha’s lens this entirely mundane subject appears completely new.