Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
The mix-master
In 1968 Denise Scott Brown and her thirteen Yale students visited Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles studio en route to Las Vegas, keen to appropriate his methods and art. What she saw in his work, specifically his books of photographs, was a deadpan way of looking at the world that allowed the observer to remain perceptive to the environment and tolerant of the everyday.

Forty one years later, at the opening of the Hayward's retrospective, Ruscha was asked how his work has avoided following the "crass commercial road" exemplified by the Poplife exhibition at Tate Modern. "A lot of my life as an artist is inspired by crass commercialism" he drawled to the disappointed questioner. The 78 paintings on display, spanning half a century of production, suggest he has managed to maintain this detached, tolerant way of looking at the complexities of everyday modernity, whilst continually experimenting with the techniques, materials and styles of his production.

Much of the painting appears to be representational, often deeply familiar, yet Ruscha is not a naturalist. He claims to paint ideas of images rather than the images themselves, using form, surface and format to engage with memories and associations. "I take everything and put it into the mix master". Many of the images have abstract elements superimposed, questioning assumptions and encouraging new associations. This works most successfully in a narrative series of airbrush paintings that recall black and white photography and cinema in their evocations of common, primarily domestic, imagery. The applied white rectangles applied to the moody silhouettes of suburban houses in Strong, Healthy (1987) allude to hidden messages whilst suggesting cheery anonymity.

Ruscha is predominantly known as a painter of words and over 60% of the paintings here feature words as a formal device. Seen in a catalogue there is a danger that these paintings can be dismissed as graphic design. Experienced in the show they reveal a complex exploration of materials that significantly contributes to the ambiguity of meaning and association. E.Ruscha (1959) demonstrates his early attempts to overcome the dominating, thick swirls of abstract expressionism with the formal certainty of the alphabet. Box smashed flat (1961) has a splattered violence exaggerated by the sampling of the angelic Sun Maid poster girl. Later paintings become more materially exotic - Sand in the Vaseline (1974) uses egg yolk on moiré. This particular combination of familiar form, suggestive meaning and material richness creates a work that is beautiful and provocative, demanding repeated viewing from different angles.

All of Ruscha's work is deeply rooted in his adopted hometown of LA, a context Hayward director Ralph Rugoff wished to reinforce with the exhibition design "making the Hayward feel like California". This could have led to a Gehry-esque assembly of ply, chainlink and corrugated metal, no doubt reinforcing the Hayward's potential to feel like a labyrinth. Instead the designers, 6a architects, opted for bright lights and large spaces, stripping the galleries back to allow the original topography of levels, ramps, stairs and lifts provide rich panoramas and long glimpses. It is an unexpected pleasure to see the Hayward laid bare and a design decision that is spectacularly appropriate for the exhibition. Breaking the restraints of the room format overcomes a simple chronological reading of the work, allowing snapshot comparisons between contrasting periods.

A tension between openness and the need for wall space lead to a last minute decision to hang pictures on the exposed concrete walls. It's only vanishing cream (1973), shellac on silk on board-shuttered in-situ concrete wall is the most delicious material moment of the show. It reinforces the experiential richness of Ruscha's paintings and suggests the potential for a richer reading of them beyond the gallery's white walls, a little closer to the crass everyday outside.
   
Published by Geoff Shearcroft
A review of 'Ed Ruscha:
Fifty years of painting'
at the Hayward Gallery.
Building Design
23 October, 2009