Now, how can a painting be so profound?
How can it sing of the moments we’ve known?
Of light coalescing, of liquids aglow?
Of life, of pleasure, of loneliness?
I’ve been ’cross this country from valley to canyon,
Seen everything I could get my two hands on,
And sure as my guitar and laptop say Scanlan,
Ed Ruscha’s an American hero.
—Joe Scanlan, “The Ballad of Ed Ruscha”
Ed Ruscha is something of an anomaly among L.A. artists, but at the same time perhaps their quintessential representative. Among the group of Ferus Gallery alumni to gain global prominence in the ’60s and ’70s, he alone (or maybe alongside Bob Irwin) has managed to expand and consolidate his art-world relevance up to the present day. A rare L.A. art star who doesn’t want or need to teach, Ruscha’s public inaccessibility is offset by the patent reproducibility of his work, the articulateness of his quixotic utterances, and his John-Cusack-does-The-Grapes-of-Wrath prettiness — a nice package of mass-media fodder and a guileless case study for the post-Warhol mode of artist marketing. His work — paintings, photographs, films, self-published books, and prints — is far too idiosyncratic to fit comfortably in the Pop or proto-conceptualist niches to which it’s commonly assigned, but nevertheless provides some of those genres’ finest moments.
In the ’70s, Ruscha briefly verged on has-been status, lumped variously with the lost generation of ’60s Venice Beach Guys and the first-generation East Coast Popists who had receded into blue-chip predictability. But Ruscha re-emerged in the ’80s as one of the most respected and influential artists of the era. That period was glutted with artists attempting to grapple with the differences and similarities between verbal and visual languages, but no matter what they came up with, it had usually been done earlier and much better by Ruscha. Where Ruscha’s work has a deep though ambivalent relationship to painting and literary history, as well as to popular culture — specifically advertising and printing — much of the ’80s text-based work in general was glib and condescending, relying on the built-in authority of words for their adlike impact, coasting on the depth and breadth of meaning that had been assayed in Ruscha’s oeuvre. The wide success of this strategy — superficial association with Ruscha’s work without even trying to deliver the goods — may in part explain Ruscha’s shift to wordless images during the same period. Thankfully, most of his imitators have left the playing field or fallen into easily ignored repetition. Ruscha himself, as evidenced by his Getty commission Picture Without Words and the powerhouse show of Maxfield Parrish–ish mountains and gigantic spattered mapscapes at Gagosian in 1998, continues to surprise and challenge.
Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Edward Ruscha: Editions 1959–1999 (reorganized by LACMA’s Sharon Goodman) chronicles the artist’s pivotal participation in the printmaking renaissance of the ’60s, as well as Ruscha’s invention of the “artist’s book” as we have come to know it. A printmaking retrospective by a major painter is often a poor cousin to a show of his paintings, but in many ways Ruscha’s ideas are best suited to the medium of printmaking. Elements from all the artist’s work, including plays on flatness, reliance on typographical elements and the added coolness of industrial production techniques, are subtly reinforced in the graphic works. Beginning unchronologically with a 1968 silkscreen of the artist’s most recognizable image, the poetically dislocated Hollywood sign, the show moves from strength to strength. Over the course of his career, Ruscha has worked with most of the artists’ printmaking workshops that, beginning in the ’60s, raised the medium out of its second-class status. Several of the most important of these facilities are located in L.A., including Cirrus, Gemini G.E.L. and June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop, where Ruscha produced his breakthrough series of single-word illusionistic spilled-liquid images.
In these works and the concurrent landscapes, inexplicably solid images of utterly ephemeral and mundane aspects of the world are alternately steeped in ominous melancholy or giddy absurdity, incidentally and unpiously probing the mechanisms of semiotics. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Ruscha’s slight modification to his Life magazine–canonized 1966 screenprint Standard Station that resulted in the monkey-wrench-in-the-brain 1969 variation Cheese Mold Standard with Olive. Recasting the archetypal commercial American landscape into a lunar palette of phosphorescent blue-greens, Ruscha irrationally plunked the image of an actual-size cocktail olive onto the upper right edge of the picture. Such self-deflating visual incongruities multiply in the work, culminating in the extra-large I’m Amazed of 1971, which covers the title phrase with 5,693 hand-drawn life-size houseflies. These unreasonable discontinuities, rooted in his brief apprenticeship with musical prankster Spike Jones (!), are the generative locus of Ruscha’s art.
Even as the trompe l’oeil intrusions reached critical mass with the swarm of flies, Ruscha shifted up to an even higher level of absurdity with his use of unlikely “inks” in works such as Chocolate Room (a 1970 installation not included in this show, but a highlight of MOCA’s 1995 Reconsidering the Object of Art), Pepto-Caviar Hollywood and the tour-de-force six-print suite News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues, which piled black-currant pie filling, raw egg, bolognese sauce, Hershey’s chocolate-flavor syrup, squid in ink, crushed baked beans, mango chutney, daffodils, axle grease and caviar onto the hapless printing â screens. This last, much-publicized work, simultaneously pandering to and mocking the gimmick-craving tabloid mentality with which art is popularly received, was a bomb with collectors frozen by archival anxiety syndrome. Little did they know they were passing up one of the major artworks of 20th-century printmaking.
The remainder of the actual prints are riddled with an incredible number of thrown-off ideas, from the utterly weird pun photography of Sweets, Meats, Sheets, to the unguarded rural melancholy of Let’s Keep in Touch, the unsettlingly exquisite fallen light of Western Vertical, and the radioactive iconography of Ship and the other mid-’80s nonverbal silhouettes. The kicker is the closing suite of four 1998 pieces using the silent-film title-card motif The End, which constitutes the most gratifying example of holography by a visual artist ever.
As if this wasn’t enough, two adjacent galleries present another whole body of work — Ruscha’s self-published books of photographs — that stands on its own as a major artistic achievement. Beginning in 1963 with Twentysix Gasoline Stations (containing the artist’s snapshots of exactly that, taken on a road trip along Route 66 between L.A. and Oklahoma City), Ruscha invented a new category of artistic activity — mass-produced paperback artist’s books — that has since become a vigorous ongoing genre of its own. Ruscha himself made over a dozen books between 1962 and 1972 (1978 if you count a late collaboration with Lawrence Weiner), ranging from the legendary fold-out Every Building on the Sunset Strip of 1966 to the goofy narrative collaboration with Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell entitled Royal Road Test, which forensically documents the effects of hurling a manual typewriter out the window of a 1963 Buick travelling 90 mph. With examples of each of the books displayed, as well as laminated copies mounted to a reading table, and several excellent series of recent print editions deriving from the same images, the book section of the exhibit is worth the price of admission alone.
Often, when an artist expands the scale of her work, the result is a dissipation of the work’s energy. In her last show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Marnie Weber’s elaborate collages of Arizona Highways–
style landscapes populated with erotically posed female animal/human hybrids were voyeuristically scaled. Her new exhibition, “Sleepy Weepy Stories,” not only expands the dimensions to imposing proportions, but throws in a couple of extremely idiosyncratic multimedia sculptures. The collaged C-prints are gorgeous, mining the artist’s peculiar pagan archetypes of childhood animism for reliably startling psychological effect. The larger size is matched in several pieces by an escalation of baroque intricacy in the design that recalls the collage work of Bay Area artist Jess. Particular standouts are the Conan Doyle wet-dream The Fairy Tree and the haunting, multilayered Swan Song. One of the sculptures, Siren Song, is dreamlike in its alien simplicity, a small sailboat covered in green and white feathers, nestled in a bed of smooth stones and emitting a groaning keen. The other, a cartoonish mountain cabin with two video monitors and a polar soundtrack, shows a pair of cryptic super-8 narratives involving a masked Red Riding Hood/nurse figure ineffectually ministering to various sickly forest creatures, and a sequence in which a bloody snowman is birthed from the very alpine hut in which the video is being displayed. The dark side of childhood imaginative life has seldom been so complexly or entertainingly portrayed.
EDWARD RUSCHA: Editions 1959–1999 | At the LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. | Through August 27
MARNIE WEBER: Sleepy Weepy Stories At ROSAMUND FELSEN GALLERY, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., B4, Santa Monica Through July 8