Is Ed Ruscha taking the piss? Does he really expect to pass this stuff off as decent art? Words written in various sizes on large boards and posted up on gallery walls for bemused punters to gawk at completely devoid of emotion. Will this do?
Many visitors to Ruscha's Extremes and In-Betweens exhibition at the Gagosian's newish Grosvenor Hill gallery will probably feel like that but, you've guessed it, not I. Whilst I'd concede these new works are not a patch on his classic gas stations they're intriguing to look at and, true to the ethos of Pop Art, you won't need very long to do so.
According to the press release these works, all made this year, "motion a dynamic interplay of words and their meanings in ascending and descending shifts of scale and tone that echo the relation of macrocosm to microcosm". What they're saying is sometimes big things like 'Universe' are written in larger lettering than smaller things like 'Tampa, Florida' and sometimes the opposite. If for example 'Silence' is bigger than 'Whisper'. The sand dune effects in these acrylics are, one assumes, supposed to represent wrinkles. That's if the titles, Silence with Wrinkles and Universe with Wrinkles, are anything to go by. The smallest writing is so small you have to walk right up to the canvas to read it (and even then it's tricky) giving you a tiny approximation of the immersive experience some get when spending time in front of a Rothko.
I'm pretty sure Ruscha isn't searching for such lofty comparisons but the backgrounds on their own could work as abstract expressionist pieces. The woody effect of Inch, Mile (below) is highly satisfying yet, for some reason, the upturned triangle of Really Old (above) irritated me. Who knows why? My guess is I prefer the simplicity of the rectangular pieces. Perhaps I'm simple.
Similar to listening to minimal compositions any minor change of scale, colour, or shape seems to stand out a mile so the use of black on Bio, Biology catches the eye. Unfortunately simply adding a letter to the word in each of its reiterations does seem like a pretty lame idea. Like something I'd scrawl in the back of one of my old schoolbooks during a particularly dull Geography lesson.
Ruscha has named the font he uses for these works 'Boy Scout utility modern' and here's the artist himself explaning the thinking behind that "If the telephone company was having a picnic and asked one of their employees to design a poster, this font is what he’d come up with. There are no curves to the letters – they’re all straight lines – and I’ve been using it for years. I guess it’s my font, because it’s become comfortable to me, and I can’t get beyond it – and don’t need to get beyond it."
A quote that says both nothing and quite a lot. It suggests to me that at the age of 78 Ruscha has reached a time when he's done with frills and frippery (not that he could ever be considered a baroque or rococo painter in the first place) and is ready to pare things right back. Sun, Atom (below) making the most extreme case of this. Yet he still finds room to include both Texas and a horse suggesting he's not quite ready to leave behind earthbound Americana just yet.
Arrows, perhaps because it uses symbols rather than words, is one of the most visually pleasing pieces on show. Sometimes using words in paintings can seem like cheating although there's a long tradition of it, From Gillray and Cruikshank's 19c satires via Roy Lichtensein's comic book adaptions through to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger's more personal/political sloganeering. I'd never really got on with Richard Prince's 'joke' works but have been slightly fascinated by On Kawara, the Japanese conceptual artist, who simply painted the date everyday. A work of lunatic application. Most of us struggle to post a song every day for a week when doing one of those Facebook best songs of the 70s 'challenges'.
Ruscha's work falls somewhere between Kawara's strictly defined parameters and Prince's more loosely defined aesthetic and because of that it doesn't always hit the mark for me. Years Months Weeks seems a pretty decent distillation of what he's trying to do with this series of paintings.
Maybe one day in a large retrospective of Ruscha's entire career these paintings will make a diverting side room. In the grand scheme of things, however, the Hollywood sign from behind, the fenced off buildings, and, yes, the Standard gas station will be what he's best remembered for.
If you do get along please put some time aside for admiring the architecture of the Gagosian's largest London gallery. Designed by the firm Caruso St John (who'd previously been responsible for the Walsall New Art Gallery and Westbourne Grove's Brick House) it's a formidably accomplished modernisation of an old Brutalist block. It manages to simultaneously catch your eye whilst also blending in with its surrounds in a surprisingly quiet corner of Mayfair. Go for the art. Stay for the architecture.