Courtesy Gagosian GalleryYou know it's a good gallery season when the two most important artists in L.A. — David Hockney and Ed Ruscha, neither of whom has had a substantial show here in years — reassert themselves with drop-dead exhibitions. Hockney's show of recent paintings at L.A. Louver in September reconfirmed his status as a painter of monumental gifts, and Ruscha's current selection of text-based canvases and works on paper at Gagosian reminds us that he is as much the poet laureate of the city as he is our pioneering Pop/
Conceptualist par excellence. Words have always been paramount for Ruscha, from his earliest works, where they were rendered in thick, Abstract Expressionist globs of paint, to his classically cool texts, which float against striated fields of everything from gunpowder and Pepto-Bismol to just plain pastel. Text is everywhere in the new works, as well, and the artist makes each word hum with multivalent significance.
Drawn exclusively from Los Angeles street names, the words in these pictures play with the international renown of Sunset Blvd., Hollywood and Vine, make us consider the metaphorical symbolism of Highland or Artesia, and also suggest vast geographical expanses of space with the march of street after street off to the horizon. Hollywood to Pico features horizontal stripes that recede in perspective from the foreground to a distant background. Rendered in mottled grays and blacks, each stripe is labeled as if it were from an essentialized Thomas Bros. map, with Hollywood closest to us at the bottom of the painting and Pico off in the distance in the upper reaches of the field. The street names build northward to their culmination in “Hollywood.” The viewer's vantage point, however, affords a look out over the expanse from atop the suggested Hollywood Hills — no lights, no buildings, no cars, just an unfurling mantra of civic monikers: Hollywood, Sunset, Santa Monica, Melrose, Beverly, Third, Wilshire, Olympic, Pico. This is reminiscent of Ruscha's famous Hollywood Sign works from the late 1960s, where we look up at the letters silhouetted against a smoggy sunset — a bit of self-referential retrospection found throughout the current show.
Along with wordplay, the landscape of L.A. has been a constant for the artist, from the first gasoline station in his photographic travelogue Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), to the accordion-fold photo-survey of Sunset in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), to the paintings of the mid-1980s, where sardonic texts float above the illuminated grids of city streets at night. A large work on paper titled Pacific Coast Highway continues the tradition, appearing as the most unsentimental paean to coastal culture one can imagine in its diagrammatic representation of the lazy curves of PCH intersected by a convulsive Sunset Boulevard in speckled shades of gray. But to the experienced Angeleno, this map graphically captures the epiphany of following a quintessentially urban street like Sunset through all sorts of neighborhoods until you reach the edge of the continent. Ruscha delivers this thrill with characteristic cowboy coolness (after all, he was raised in Oklahoma), bringing words and picture together in an unassuming yet mutually invigorating manner. Through his eyes and razor-sharp wit, we are afforded the chance to see the city afresh, with all its pleasures and terrors.
A different sort of illumination is offered in the collaborative project “Telephone” by Michael Coughlan and Jory Felice at Works on Paper Inc. — this time involving the creative process itself. The show revolves around the idea of passing verbal clues over the telephone about a drawing one artist has made, which the other artist then attempts to re-create sight unseen. The results are mounted and framed together, creating pairs that range wildly. What becomes most apparent is the stylistic difference between the two artists' drawing methods, Coughlan opting for rough-hewn outlines that only now and then break into modeled dimensionality, while Felice bounces back and forth between a highly illustrational and detailed approach and a more scruffy, slacker style. Each manner yields completely different meanings for a given subject, striking right to the heart of the subjectivity of interpretation.
The jumping-off point for Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter (it is not indicated who came up with it first) involves a sign with the titular text, below which is a drawing of a gutter. The sign varies little between the two sketches, but the gutter in Felice's version is rendered with vivid details that suggest the sturdy stone blocks of the curb, a grungy sidewalk splattered with stains, weeds sprouting from the cracks, cigarette butts and used condoms littering the street, and an unknown dark, viscous liquid draining into the grate from both sides. Felice's conception takes the gutter as a site of inherent sordidness, giving the phrase a graphic counterpoint. Coughlan puts a different spin on the idea: With great economy of means — a single horizontal line for the curb edge, a few intersecting lines to suggest a gutter grate, and a wavy horizontal demarcation that parallels the curb — he shows a gutter metaphorically flooded to near capacity with licentious thoughts, hilariously intimating a soul beyond saving.
Interlock is another telling example of what happens when two minds grapple with a shared idea. My guess is that Felice began this one with a stylized line drawing of a nude figure, reduced to near abstraction, who gathers his knees up into his chest as he interlocks the fingers of each hand with the toes of corresponding feet. Vulnerably exposed in this position, the figure shows a moment of serene calm, recalling the lassitude of Henry Moore. Felice seemed to be most intent on getting the form right, as some lines have been whited out for readjustment. Coughlan churns out his version without too much fussing over the elegance of his line or an attention to ideal proportions, but catapults the concept to another level with the inclusion of a stick of burning incense placed in front of the figure, effortlessly turning the image into a send-up of touchy-feely New Age centeredness.
As much as the comparison of one interpretation to another maintains one's interest, the kooky subjects themselves are often the most entertaining. Both artists possess a wicked sense of humor, which comes out in pieces like West Coast Love Affair, featuring two white-trash, gun-toting rockers in T's and underwear, collapsed on a rumpled bed in postcoital bliss. The shirt on one of the figures — gender uncertain — advertises his/her status as an “Insane Fuck Machine,” while the clearly female figure's shirt reads “Wake Me if You Want Some.” Felice's drawing scans like a storyboard from an outlaw road movie, while Coughlan's could be a backwoods cartoon from an Inland Empire zine — two related but distinct takes on the scenario.
“Telephone” lets us drop in on a lively conversation between two friends whose dialogue is sometimes guided by an improvisational jazz-combo dynamic, while other times resembling the mutually corruptive banter of Beavis and Butt-head. This strangely intimate give-and-take provides a mildly voyeuristic thrill — and provokes a nagging desire to see each of these underexposed artists solo.
ED RUSCHA: New PaintingsAt GAGOSIAN GALLERY456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills Through January 16
MICHAEL COUGHLAN and JORY FELICE: TelephoneAt WORKS ON PAPER INC.6150 Wilshire Blvd.Through December 24