by David M. Roth
One mark of superior intelligence is the ability to hold and entertain contradictory thoughts without experiencing dissonance. It’s something Ed Ruscha’s done since the early 1960s in relation to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. His vision of the American West (and of LA) has long reflected his ambivalence about the place, expressed simultaneously as a critique and love letter (of sorts). The droll humor he brings to the task remains unmatched in the annals of post-WWII American art. Like Warhol, Ruscha concluded early on that the true character of American culture could be best discerned by unpacking its myths, primarily those emanating from Hollywood. In making that realization the focus of his art, Ruscha showed how mass media colonize the mind. What fascinates is how his appropriations from those sources continue to exert nearly as much pull as the brands themselves, particularly for those raised on TV.
This small but potent show of prints, titled About Words at Crown Point Press, focuses on three of Ruscha’s longstanding preoccupations: typography, road signs and logos. The latter, belonging to Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, occupy one wall. Once-venerated icons, they stand less as paeans to automotive ingenuity than to the waning days of Hydrocarbon Man. Unlike his road signs, which come laced with visual and linguistic puns, these signifiers need no embellishment: For a certain cohort, they trigger a raft of associations relating to identity, social standing and taste. As Peter Plagens put it in an essay for the artist’s 1982 retrospective at SFMOMA: “The artist best equipped in Los Angeles is the one who asks not, Where did you go to school? But rather, What do you drive? The artist with the best antennae,” he concluded, “was the Okie, the outsider with no history.”
Within six years of his arrival there from Oklahoma, Ruscha began generating plenty of his own history, stemming initially from his early (1962) association with Walter Hopps, then the director of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to working in a mode akin to that of a billboard painter, Ruscha displayed a keen understanding of typography’s communicative power. Here, four prints featuring a vertically elongated typeface mimetically represent what the titles imply. In Zoot Suit, the distended characters evoke visions of the wearer: long and lean, “diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean,” as William DeVaughn once sang. Rain Gain, which viewers will intuitively misread as “rain again,” appears to represent California’s boom-and-bust weather cycles as a U-shaped bar graph. Castiron Calendar, the exhibition’s largest print, has the title emblazoned on an oxblood-red background, a bit of wordplay that rests a bit too heavily on the obvious gulf between permanence and temporality.
Highway road signs, Ruscha’s longstanding obsession, fare better. Three of the five on view display horizontal marks, as if seen through a rain, mud or sand-spattered windshield. Lonely Highway, the funniest of the bunch, carries the words “Gal chews same piece of gum since 1970,” a nod to roadside attractions of yore. The exhibition’s most potent piece, Your Space Gravure, carries no images or words; it shows a bullet-riddled piece of sheet metal mounted to a post reflecting the sun’s glare, a surface onto which viewers can project whatever they please. In that sense, it may well be Ruscha’s most concise depiction yet of what has always drawn people to LA: the possibility of limitless reinvention.
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Ed Ruscha: “About Words” @ Crown Point Press through June 2, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.