Reading Ed Ruscha in Bregenz, Austria
You are reading these words.
There, you’ve gone and done it! Your eyes scanned each word of a concise five-word sentence, assembled meaning from subject, object and verb and simultaneously made it come true. The sentence will be equally true for the next person who reads it. But it wasn’t true before you dialed in this page. So the act of reading that sentence births the veracity of content.
Lest you think I’m going all Donald Barthleme on you, I’m setting you up for the paradigms of linguistic calisthenics with which you might best appreciate the extraordinary work of Ed Ruscha.
Reading Ed Ruscha opened on July 7th at the KunstHaus Bregenz and will remain on view through the summer and into a part of the fall. In three distinct floors, the exhibition traces Ruscha’s use of language, redaction, typography, the palindrome, and his use of the Book as both medium and subject. The title of the exhibition is apt. Reading paintings, both visually and verbally, is what one does with Ruscha’s work. But reading is only the beginning of the aesthetic experience.
When tasting wine, you’re supposed to swirl the wine in your mouth, inhale to oxygenate the flavors. Tastes come in initial impressions, undertones and finishes. There is also the distinction between aroma and taste, which can work both in contrast and harmony to one another.
Ed Ruscha’s visual use of language can best be framed in these vintner paradigms. There is direct content that is immediately evident: A painting of a book with the single word “Manual” on the cover. Concrete meaning if you will. Often there are undertones of wit and humor: the word Manual can naturally take the form of an instruction/reference tome but it comes with its equally evocative mirror doppelgänger of “automatic.” In a digital age, there is something distinctly analogue to a Manual. These double entendres and grammatical complexities alter meaning and add to a perhaps more resonant appreciation of Ruscha’s artistic paradigms. For instance, invest some more thought and one may arrive at manual labor, which Ruscha embraces. The painting is made by the artist’s hand and the charm of an almost trompe d’oeile depiction of a book is made even more intoxicating by its organic hand rendered methodology.
And here’s the most fascinating aspect: These intellectual investigations are not immediately necessary to appreciate or understand the work. There’s a matter-of-factness to the painting that doesn’t demand anything other than its objectness. While intellectual investment may yield greater pleasures, it doesn’t negate the simple purity of the image. This allows for an art that is simultaneously democratic and distinctly elite. No mean feat that!
Introduced, I believe, with the Cityscapes series of the mid 90’s, Ruscha has used the shape of words and phrases and their placement on a plane as stand-ins for the meaning. The best incarnation of this particular paradigm is when these shapes are made by gently applying bleach to the linen cover of a vintage book. They are, however equally evocative when executed in a dry brush technique on linen. I have always seen this series and technique as an allusion to redaction, the onerous deleting of text by government censors wishing to keep sensitive materials from the public gaze.
(This is quite different from the strike through option in digital typography, which allows the reader to understand the meaning of a sentence while simultaneously acknowledging that the publisher means to have it withdrawn. I rather abhor blogs who use this technique for snarky comments while trying to remain aloof.)
The use of bleach furthermore changes the feel significantly as it places it square in an act of erasure and not blacking out. Lost memory and fading inks are also alluded to.
Ruscha’s use of this compositional trope highlights the cadence of the phrase in size and placement. The artist always supplies the content in the title of the work thus the act of reading is twofold: 1.) the title has to be read, and 2.) the viewers gaze then places each word in the bleached spaces allotted. The viewer becomes an essential cog in the wheel of aesthetic completion. It also brings to mind scansion, the study of beat and meter in poetry. Scansion is the discipline that defines iambic pentameter as a line with ten syllables of five pairings of unstressed/stressed units (feet.) A fine example would be a line from John Keats’ Ode to Autumn “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells.” Poetry is everywhere for Ruscha but rather than tap the literary lions, Ruscha hears the poetry in lines from Westerns and Film Noir: “Give Up The Gold Or Give Up Your Life.” The quote, or mere evocation places the work in a contemporary context. Poetic paradigms like alliteration can also be handily applied when listening to Ruscha’s chosen phrases like “Lion in Oil” and countless other examples. Alliteration and onomatopoeia in Ruscha’s work could easily be a doctoral thesis in and of itself.
Linguistic content can also be obliquely political like in “In God We Trust” where Ruscha places the phrase in the circumference of a circle, which quickly becomes the text on the face of a penny in one’s memory. Politics, money, history and religion in a swift and economical gesture! The exhibition basically acts like intellectual dominoes. The more you savor, the more allusions cascade around you.
The first floor of the Bregenz exhibition contains several vitrines containing the entire output of Ruscha’s extensive book publishing. These are not monographs but rather quixotic visual conceptual books that gather images and present them as art works in and unto themselves. Rather than affecting a public library presentational coldness to the proceedings the exhibition has struck upon a wonderful alternative. Each book is represented by an Ipad version and said tablets jut out from the vitrines offering the viewers a chance to swipe your fingers and scan the contents of each precious intimate tomb. (There’s nothing that I want more than to have Ruscha’s entire art book oeuvre on the digital shelves of my Ibook App. I’ll inquire if this might be forthcoming and keep my TruffleHunters posted.)
An impressive volume of On The Road by Jack Kerouac, illustrated and designed by Ruscha, is also on display-encased in a vitrine and individually framed pages covering an entire wall. I mentioned this book and series in a previous post when I first saw it at the Hammer Museum last year. The book is wonderful and Ruscha’s “illustrations” are pitch perfect. I find them especially good because they work on an evocative level rather than an illustrational one. There’s also a wonderful inversion of chronology at work. Ruscha’s objects make Kerouac’s writing seem extremely relevant and contemporary while Kerouac’s writing makes Ruscha’s images and selections vintage. Seldom does one see a pairing that is so mutually beneficial and complementary.
In Ruscha’s able hands the book becomes a filmic medium taking each reader on a journey. The visual book is one of the few mediums that collect several images as a unit. Turn a page, the next image is revealed while the previous image is cloaked. Sequence affords a journey. With Ruscha, narrative development is often undermined with a surrealistic flourish of the unexpected. Each book offers such a path and to look at Ruscha’s career in total, the same can be said for his imagistic trajectory. The Bregenz exhibition bears this observation out handsomely. Bodies of work that may appear dissonant or unexpected at first, fit into an umbrella paradigm effortlessly when seen as the artist’s entire oeuvre. It seems to me that Ruscha is as good as he is because he practices a creative “both/and” generosity rather than a dogmatic “either/or” paradigm.
Most, but certainly not all, of Ruscha’s verbal/visual work is executed in a type style that the artist describes as “boy scout utility modern.” A free font version is available as Tapeworm, the name being a derivation of a sign making technique of using masking tape. It’s as declarative and non-emotive as a lot of the content Ruscha traffics in. Perhaps the most stunning deviation is Ruscha’s introduction of a topsy-turvy typography in the execution of a painting/book pairing “Stock Market Technique Number One.”
The original book is framed at the bottom right of the painting. The title on the original is a rather bland serif rendition but content dictates a different interpretation in Ruscha’s faux book painting. This contrast is sly. The editorializing of content happens solely in the use of what can only be described as a Chubby Checker font. I bring this up as simply another example of the fact that every choice on display is intentional and thus has the potential for content. The onion-like layers insist on pealing.
Lastly, Ruscha’s fascination with language and visual punditry is on display with his quixotic use of the palindrome. For those unfamiliar with the term, a palindrome is simply a word, sentence or phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards.
Racecar and Madam are wonderful individual word examples and my personal favorite phrase has always been “Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?” But least you think Ruscha merely uses this visual word play as an end itself, Ruscha couples this visual/linguistic complexity with another visual cousin to the Palindrome.
Bookmatching is a term I first encountered in seeing wood veneer being manufactured in Indiana. The grain of the wood creates a rhythm when flipped and matched. To demonstrate, if a grain reads from left to right ABCD to create a longer pleasing pattern you flip the next slice and abut it to the first. This creates a visual pattern that reads ABCDDCBA and so on. The Rorschach inkblot is another visual example if you will. This fits deftly into the aforementioned allusion to scansion as well.
Ruscha uses the palindrome as the verbal equivalent of bookmatching. “Tulsa Slut” fuses the two. In “Tulsa Slut” the words are painted on a large canvas that bears the double, book matched image of a snowy mountaintop. The double image then also becomes the two halves of an open book. Lastly, this mirroring is also a referent to the wonders of the human body, which bears the same twoness: eyes, ears, ovaries, lungs, kidneys, testicles and breasts all come in pairs. It’s all there, if one cares to read it.
Having your cake and reading it too.
I spent three hours at the exhibition, dividing my time almost perfectly one hour per floor. If the exhibit were in my hometown, I could see making weekly visits to have the works reveal more magic with each subsequent reading. For every visual and linguistic epiphany I managed to share in this post there are probably a dozen more that lie in wait. I can only hope that the exhibition travels to other institutions. I don’t believe this is the case right now.
Thoughtfully curated and installed with grace and restraint, Reading Ed Ruscha is a delight. The exhibition further proves that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts. The parts are pleasurable to be sure, but boy howdy, the assembled oeuvre really impresses.
Reading Ed Ruscha continues at the KunstHaus Bregenz through October 14th, 2012
–Mario M. Muller, Bregenz, Austria
Final European post forthcoming in a couple of weeks.