Showing posts with label Ed Ruscha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ed Ruscha. Show all posts

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Bob Perelman was thumbing through my copy of Ed Ruscha’s They Call Her Styrene (Phaidon, 2000) the other evening, which raises the question of intermedia from another angle. Ruscha, if you don’t know his work, is a painter and photographer associated with the 1960s Los Angeles scene that proved to be an intersection between Pop, Funk and Conceptual art. His work takes different forms, but Styrene is representative of the works that have most attracted me: prints, drawings and watercolors involving anything from a single word to short phrases, often against backgrounds that are close to monochromatic but which may suggest a picturesque element. Styrene collects some 600 of these works into a single, affordable volume – I’ve seen individual paintings priced as high as $45,000. My question is this: fine as they are as visual works of art, are Ed Ruscha’s text pieces also writing?

Ruscha himself has a cryptic, but intriguing comment right at the end of the book: “Sometimes found words are the most pure because they have nothing to do with you. I take things as I find them. A lot of these things come from the noise of everyday life.” End of comment.

So far as I know, Ruscha has not undertaken to publish these works as writing, nor in the context of writing. As visual art, these works inhabit that territory that utilizes language for its own purposes. Its closest kin in that vein may be the signage of Jenny Holzer, the paintings of Lawrence Weiner, or the poster paintings of Barbara Krueger, but the more densely textual pseudo-philosophical musings of Joseph Kosuth and Art Language aren’t entirely unrelated either. Ruscha’s prints and paintings make use of color and the illusions of depth and texture in ways that Holzer’s do not and his works often lack the overt political commentary one finds in her work and in that of Krueger’s. At its most plain, a Ruscha work might consist of white sans serif letters centered against a black background:






While Holzer has executed some pieces etched into benches, a form that has to recall the (literally) concrete poems of Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ruscha’s droll texts strike me in many ways being better writing. If, that is, they are writing at all. The last text above, for example, makes great use of the recurrence of the a, r and m sounds (not to mention the echo of the w one hears in the two instances of the u), an attention to the smallest of details that might be more apt to associate with the poetry of Robert Grenier. Microwriting such as this can invoke every pleasure one expects from the best of poetry. The first two pieces above aren’t bad either – both use the same strategy of invoking a single term that is “out of context” in its phrase (screws and musical), which functions to set the language around it into a kind of relief, classic demonstrations of what the Russian formalists called ostrananie, Brecht “the alienation effect,” and which Pound characterized as “making it new.”

In addition to reminding me at moments of Grenier, some of the more visually complex of Ruscha’s pieces, where richly textured “3D” words float in idealized pastel skies, remind me of how Hannah Weiner used to describe her visual hallucinations, words that would appear on people’s foreheads that to her seemed to be composed in “dog fur” or similar materials. Weiner used these messages to create her “clairvoyant” works, although that aspect of such found language is not carried through her writing – the closest she gets is to occasionally “erase” some lines of certain letters.

All of which makes Ed Ruscha’s texts function as an intriguing test of the boundaries of writing – how can a lone word such as “fud,” written in what looks like white ribbon on an intense red surface (onto which the letters cast shadows) function as a poem? It can / It can’t / It can / It can’t – like a Necker cube or other optical illusions, the text strobes in and out of the realm of literature (though it always remains within the realm of the visual). It may be that this flicker effect is precisely Ed Ruscha’s contribution to writing.

Some of Ruscha’s word works can be sampled on the web at the following sites:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Golden Words
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Mountain
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>News, Brews, Mews, Stews, Pews and Dues
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Street Meets Avenue
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Now
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mud
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Selected Works
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Miracle
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Angel
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Evil
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Waves of Advancing Technology
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