Los Angeles

Edward Ruscha

Ferus Gallery

There is a remarkable tension about this show. No room here for amateurs; sybarites keep out. These are coldly brilliant canvases whose perfection of technique proclaims a hermetic self-sufficiency, an almost depersonalized aloofness. The tension comes in at that “almost.” Personality, not through painterly gesture or expressionistic distortion, asserts itself in the surreal clamps and torn western magazine that Ruscha aggressively and ironically adds to his obsessive order, intrudes via the deracinated, the unconnected, the literally conceived object.

The paintings divide into two groups. First, and most impressive, are the two large landscapes which mythologize the heart of peregrinating America—the filling station. Standard Station, 10c Western Being Torn in Half presents a surgically steril image in red, white, and vivid light blue. The vacant station is painted as a lunar architect’s plan might be, using hard-edged forms, clean lines, sharply delineated perspectives into airless flat space, and brilliantly stifling color. In the upper right hand corner is a torn western magazine, illusionistically portrayed so as to seem attached to, rather than painted on, the canvas. The placement is surrealistic, the notion poetic; but the ontological gap between magazine and painting is finally impossible to bridge. Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas has no such literary devices; the colors, red, white and dark blue, are perhaps less satisfying in their heavy-handed reliance on value contrasts for dramatic effect, but the total image is nevertheless austerely compelling.

The second group contains four small paintings more nearly surreal in their mood, sign paintings. Two, appropriately in this highly professional context, announce the word “BOSS” in orange letters on a dark blue ground. In one, titled Securing The Last Letter, the clamp which wrenches the final “S” out of shape is a fink. In the second, Not Only Securing The Last Letter But Damaging It As Well, the “S” is distorted by two clamps, whose hostile intent is no longer a secret. Hurting The Word Radio #1 and “#2” are variations on the same theme; the yellow letters of the word “RADIO” are now set apart from an electrically light blue ground by the shadows they cast, and once again single letters fall victim to the minatory clamps. The effect of all this clutching is not significantly different from that of the superimposed magazine. The distorted letters, rubbery and agonized, are in direct conflict with the icy formality of stencilled sign on flat ground; they signal impurity in an ambience of mechanical formal means and suggest artistic anxieties about the hegemony of technique. (One thinks of Leger, who said, “Technique must be more and more exact, the execution must be perfect . . . I prefer a mediocre painting perfectly executed to a picture, beautiful in intention, but not executed. Nowadays a work of art must bear comparison with any manufactured object. Only the picture which is an object can sustain that comparison and challenge time.”) That an intrusion of some sort, however, seems necessary to Ruscha’s oeuvre at this time is proven by the poverty of Dimple, a sign that just lies there.

In short, if some of Ruscha’s paintings are unresolved, the best convey the possibility of an iconographic power of a high order.

Nancy Marmer