THAT WAS THEN
THIS IS NOW
reads Ed Ruscha’s 2014 lithograph print. Decades of other statements and terse phrases preceded it: HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB. I DONT WANT NO RETRO SPECTIVE. COLD BEER BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. HURRY UP SCHEDULE. VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE.
Authoring such pieces must be fun- the process usually entails snatching overheard conversations or film quotes or road signs and stencilling them pristinely on canvas. If I were to try my hand at this technique, my art would comprise some of these formulations: INSIDE AND OUT ALL LIES. LEGACIES AND OTHER THINGS. BE STRATEGIC. or GENUINE INTEREST CAN FOLLOW FAKE INTEREST. There is also a gazillion other possible word constructions given the human propensity to talk, socialize and share. We consume and spew out vast amounts of lingual matter every day (newspapers, emails, Facebook messages, stilted chat with flatmates, films, announcements, public signage). We live language, we think words. So why would Ed Ruscha be attracted to this banality for about fifty years? What does he achieve by isolating phrases and notions and making us scrutinize them in his works of art?
Perhaps the new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in London (5 Oct-17 Dec 2016) could give us some pointers. All works on display have been made this year and confirm Ed’s life-long compulsion to address forms of visual and verbal communication; Ed seems to be perennially interested in mining their latency, slipperiness and surrealism. Rendered in his own typeface ‘Boy Scout utility modern’, the text in Bio, Biology (2016) shrinks with every step down a diagonal line (or looks zoomed out if you decide to read the work in the opposite direction). The processes of magnifying, resizing and cropping immediately evoke the ubiquitous digital toolkit – our ingrained new language. The words themselves perform another role, their individual letters acting as building units that are added or taken away along the line. Our eyes ascend and descend Ed’s latest paintings just like potential climbers in his famous Mountain series, with the slopes functioning as Ed’s fix of the diagonal line that pervades his work. The view is often funny, always deceptively clear.
My mind jumps on a parallel track and I think of Carl Andre’s brick works or Donald Judd’s glossy stacks. I make out similar kinds of assemblage and arrangement in their art as in Ed Ruscha’s paintings. But Ed’s break-down of words (notions, concepts) is not so much about the physical presence of language although this is certainly true; it rather makes me wonder about the subsequent operation of their gradual (re)construction. While what I truly love about Ed’s work is its slap-in-the-face literalness and undeniable humour, I am impressed by how much it asks to decompose and compose meaning. One letter can derail the stability of the whole thing and throw you down a cliff, as it happens in HAPPY MESS.
Helen DeWitt, a bewitching writerly mind, describes an interview with a famous pianist in her first novel ‘The Last Samurai’: ‘To put it another way, let’s just take a little phrase on the piano, it sounds one way if you’ve just heard a big drum and another way if you’ve heard a gourd and another way if you’ve heard the phrase on another instrument and another way again if you’ve just heard nothing at all- there are all kinds of ways you can hear the same sound.’ The pianist later elaborates on the notion of a fragment that should be perceived as such and how he ‘thought you had to be able to hear how something did not work as part of a bigger thing to hear how it did’. The impact of context on a sound, on a letter, on a word, what happens before and after it, is discernible in Ruscha’s art, too. I could play around with DIP, DIE, DIM, DAM, DAMN, DAME, DIME, DICE, DICK. How easily you can slip from DAME to DICK; change appears to be a matter of movement, of ascending and descending your mental alphabet and savouring the occasionally funny, always deceptively clear view.
Speaking of variations that widen the field of knowledge and of experience and prevent boredom, it is worth mentioning Gagosian Gallery’s branch in New York that has recently mounted a very serious, yet entertaining show. Ed Ruscha: Books & Co. ended nearly two months ago, on 9th September, and I deeply wish there would be other iterations or spin-offs of the exhibition. Ed’s ground-breaking photobooks were brought together with about a hundred of other titles whose authors responded to, mutated or lovingly mocked his famous 60s and 70s publications. Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) yielded Twentysix Painted Hares, Thirtyfour Parking Lots or Twentyeight Fingers, Ruscha’s 1964 Various Small Fires and Milk spawned Various Blank Pages, Various Small Meals, Various Basketball Hoops and Several Split Fountains while some artists achieved completely new entities through their alchemy, such as John Waters who turned Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968) into 12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot. It’s good to venture far away, again, the views are more rewarding even if a veil of fog remains.
Ed’s paintings as well as his photography pretend to be cool, withdrawn, expressionless- what the art world termed ‘deadpan’. They routinely visit the same places (his admired folded book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966 – , is re-shot every 3-4 years) and look at them again, and again, and then one more time. The mapping and chronicling of the urban and communication landscapes activate visual pleasure and conceptual turmoil in larger collections of the apparent sameness, forcing us to remain enthralled by fragments that don’t want to easily slide into the bigger whole. That was then but definitely still applies now- we have not cracked language, culture or art forms to such an extent that we could stop making modifications and pause for a picnic half way up the mountain. Quite the opposite, we should take a full plunge into madness*.
LOOK IT OVER
AND WHAT EVER teases Ruscha.
PS- Check out this long read from New Yorker in which Calvin Tomkins writes about Ed’s life and approach to work, why he is so attached to language and why a plunge into madness is a good thing: Ed Ruscha’s LA
PS1- On the occasion of the recent exhibition, MIT Press published ‘Various Small Books’ comprising the parodies and twists on Ed’s photobooks
PS2- Ed Ruscha wouldn’t leave any stone untouched and he took on not only the word forms but also their texture, colour and size; as shown in the video, there were further experiments with perishable materials, different fonts and flames: