An Introduction to an Artist:
I recently attended a vernissage for Ed Ruscha, pronounced “Rushey” in Stockholm, Sweden at Moderna Museet. Almost poetic, Rucha’s work may at times be difficult to categorize though a sort of absolute visualism permeates throughout the artist’s half-century career. The artists expresses strong cinematographic elements that draw upon his adopted Los Angeles and makes great use of popular culture through symbolism and brands to add satirical elements to much of his work. A Nebraskan by birth, Angelino by choice, he spent much of his youth in Oklahoma. Today, Ed Ruscha is widely accepted as one of the foremost artists of our time.
As a Midwestern transplant to the West Coast, Ruscha, through his work, might be viewed as a personification of, not only the Depression era mass exodus from the plain states to the West, but also the ideal of “manifest destiny”-the quintessential American spirit of westward expansion. In fact, this topos of national identity is drawn upon in symbolism in “Uncertain Frontier” in which silhouettes of wagons make reference not only to the form of media used but also landscape frontier art such as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”. This work, appropriately displayed in the United States Capitol, depicts a caravan of pioneers and their wagons on their trek westward in search of gold and captures the pioneer spirit of the 19th Century frontier.
Ruscha’s rural Oklahoman forbearers, known as the “Dusties” because of the great dust bowl during the depression that forced hundreds of thousands to venture west in hope of a better life, clearly had a profound influence on both the artist and his audience. One need only look at Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," or John Steinbeck’s chef d’oeuvre, the Grapes of Wrath to understand the powerful role that this era plays in the American psyche.
The exhibition, “Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting” was the result of coordination between Haus der Kunst (Munich), the Hayward Gallery of South Bank Centre (London), and Moderna Museet (Stockholm). Lars Nittve, initially approached the artist in his gallery in San Francisco some four years ago. In his opening remarks at the May 28 vernissage, Nittve, the Swedish gallery’s curator, explained that as close as one dares call an exhibition “a dream exhibition” Ruscha embodies all that one aspires to in this regard.
“I don’t want no retrospective” says the artist himself at his exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As Ann-Sofi Noring, the deputy curator reasons that in essence this double negative would lead us to believe that he does indeed want a retrospective exhibition of sorts. However, one could also argue that it is not a retrospective that his dynamic painting deserves but rather perspective.
The Artist’s Brand:
Ruscha’s fascination with the banal, cliché of American popular culture is demonstrated through his use of recognizable symbols such as “Annie” and “20th century fox”, to effectively draw the attention of the audience with familiarity. Such iconic imagery reminds the audience of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pads yet unlike the latter, Ruscha’s ability to reinvent commercial culture as art is more than just a statement, it leads to a myriad interpretations of the artists compositions. Ruscha was also a part of the Pasadena Art Museum's 1962 exhibition, "New Painting of Common Objects"-the first museum survey of American pop art.
The exhibition was masterfully arranged including a white and a black room to accentuate the use of light in Ruscha’s work. In addition to orporating words and phrases into his work, Ruscha is also known for his work with photography. Humor plays an active role in the artists work and serves as an introduction to a more nuanced understanding of what the artists seeks to achieve. His pieces, “Standard oil”, “Norm’s diner” might initially be perceived as puns on the lifeless and ordinary spirit of American culture, yet, like much of his work, serve a deeper interpretation. Though the standardness the audience is introduced to a simple beauty within the works, that ironically come to life through the use of the banal.
Ruscha’s art would not only be understood as satirical works devised to point out the irony of an artistic corporate culture, but also the absurdity of individuality within a culture of conformity. Unlike pervious artists that experimented with brand names and cultural symbolism, Rucha’s work stands out as puns rather than statements. Ruscha’s talent is his keen ability to capture the imagination of his audience symbolism from the American experience. His work becomes relevant as symbols of cultural history. Without the context of Americana, the audience looses the richness of Ruscha’s work. I would find it interesting to juxtapose some of Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper’s work next to Ruscha’s. Warhol, too made great use of brands and images of popular culture; and Hopper depicts everyday scenes of American life. I highly recommend the exhibit to Swedes and Swedish Americans alike, who might also enjoy the perspective of such an accomplished artist.