Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Ed Ruscha.

Posted: Fri Oct 16 2009

Mountains. Preposterous things. How do you even attempt to paint them? All that certainty and might, which could easily translate into artistic hubris. Legendary West Coast artist Ed Ruscha tackles the subject by accentuating the awesomeness of it all. To a 1998 painting of what could be the Paramount mountain, the sides of the canvas bowed like a bulging forearm, he has added, in caps, the word 'The', thus rendering the whole thing - deliriously - an affirmation of the definite article. In another painting of a mountain range, from 2000-1, Ruscha equates and deflates towering immensity with the more fragile machismo of the hardware store. 'American Tool Supply', it reads. The idea of mountains… the very idea…

For the past five decades, Ruscha has worked in the space between words and images, exploring how words look and how we 'read' images. Hollywood mythology, The American Dream, religion, the sublime, cerebral sunset standoffs and cocktail hour hangovers are there to be unpicked in his cognitive and perceptual games.

His is a doggedly hands-off art; indeed that's partly where the humour lies. Yet for a deadpan conceptualist, Ruscha has always been a great graphic designer (thanks in part to his early training as a commercial artist) and this survey blasts through combinations of colour, font and imagery that exhilarate even when the results tend towards the obscure.

Retrospectives almost always stall at some point, and there are a few too many of his soft-focus monochromes from the late 1980s and early 1990s on show here, but the pace picks up when, older and apparently angrier, Ruscha returns to earlier work to create companion paintings. So, the building in 'Blue Collar Trade School' from 1992 becomes, in 2005's 'The Old Trade School Building', a nameless edifice, lit up and surrounded by a security fence. The words may have gone but the message, for once, is clear. 'That's progress', Ruscha seems to say. The paintings would serve as a wonderful focus sharpener should the Obamas tire of the Ruscha they recently selected for the White House.

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