Ed Ruscha

October 2010

Publication: The Times

Words are everywhere in the work of the American artist Ed Ruscha. They form the subject of many of his works and are treated as objects in their own right. Ruscha is fascinated by lettering, form, patterning and all the graphic qualities that words offer; but he is also interested in the relationship between words and visual ideas. In this latter regard Ruscha’s work has some parallels with the intellectually playful aspects of Concrete Poetry. In Scotland, at least, it is difficult not to draw some comparisons with the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay.


In one work, the words ‘Dirty Baby’ are smeared forms – the lettering unclear and imperfect. These words are a far cry from the computer-generated perfection to which we’ve become familiar. Although these works lend themselves to prints and reproduction it’s almost surprising to learn that they are all original pastels, acrylics and inks. They repay close-up scrutiny on the gallery walls. So here, the words’ meaning and the way they are represented run in parallel, creating a unique relationship between the signifier and the signified. It’s a clever conceit and a trope which recurs in Ruscha’s work from its earliest manifestations to the present day.


But Ruscha’s intentions extend well beyond mere surface cleverness; despite all of their apparent simplicity, the works never seem pat or facile. Following on from the rationale and method of ‘Dirty Baby’ are others such as ‘Hollywood Tantrum,’  ‘I Plead Insanity Because I’m Just Crazy About That Little Girl,’ and ‘Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills’ which date from the mid-‘seventies.  In all of these there’s a relationship between the words themselves and the way in which they have been depicted.


Ruscha’s ‘word paintings’ underline his early training in graphic design (what is nowadays called ‘visual communication’) at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. As well as training students for careers in animation and the fine arts, the school specialised in advertising techniques and there’s a clear link between Ruscha’s work and the idiom of commercial communication.


This then is part of Ruscha’s milieu – the brash, visually slick and sophisticated boom-time California of the ‘fifties. Ruscha’s imagery – although devoid of the human form –nevertheless can be read as a kind of painterly road movie. As if to emphasise this there are proto-Pop images of a filling station and ‘Honk’ where the word itself (in the style of Soviet Agit-Prop) is painted almost synaesthetically, like a loud noise emerging from the gallery wall.


Ruscha’s immersion in the culture of Pop, movies, and good time California seems total - another work, ‘The End,’ shows a number of ‘stills’ from the end of an old-fashioned movie-reel. But as with so many of the works by this deft and visually articulate artist, there’s a catch: a slightly sinister ambiguity on which we stumble….just in case we were ever foolish to imagine that the good times just go on and on…