New York

Edward Ruscha

Iolas Gallery

Looking at Edward Ruscha’s latest collection of illusionistic word paintings at the Iolas Gallery, one is forced to deal with the inflections of a very private, odd, and wry sense of humor, which, however, is based on a straightforward, almost dumbly systematic method of collecting, enumerating, and recording selected material and images. This treatment of his subjects is in the surreal tradition of René Magritte, but commercial art techniques are also injected, so that the humorous jolts are often as unsettling in their own genre, as the Belgian master’s more fiercely psychological imagery. If one is already familiar with Ruscha’s series of small books (26 Gasoline Stations, Hollywood Apartment Houses, 9 Swimming Pools, Business Cards, Crackers, and a new one called Stains), and with some of his earlier pictures of words formed out of ribbon-like script executed in airbrushed gunpowder, one sees here an approach consistent with the techniques that he has favored in the books and in some of his recent print editions.

As always, sophisticated facility is not lacking in the carefully gradated backgrounds of these new paintings (they are much like the gold-to-brown sunset in a silk-screen print series of the Hollywood Hills done last year). Blended with meticulously artificial hues (candied orange, acidic yellows and browns), here they divorce any associations with landscape. These slick fields are the foil for a liquefied skywriting, with words such as Adios (replete. with Mexican beans popping around like flies all over its surface), Oily, Ruby, Rancho, City, Mint, or Hey puddling neatly or with calculated velocity across the canvas like punnish movie titles. A darker zone of color usually streaks the tops of the pictures, which reminded me of the speeded-up sunsets witnessed from a jet plane in flight. There is this shadow of something slightly perverse—evident in the Oily picture, for instance—while there is also the arch coyness of paintings like the small “U” formed of bubbles bouncing across a blue field, or like the canvas in which three marbles, an apple and an olive bob around like weightless incidentals on a sea of emerald green. Ruby is particularly pungent for its juicy technicolor, while Desire, a whitish script scattered with unidentifiable blue globules on an orange ground, seemed more obscure in its combination of word, color, and suggestion. The visual kick has to be accompanied by some more subtle, but quick dart of humor which makes the mere record of a word do something unexpected with that word’s ordinary significance.

Also on display was a completed copy of Ruscha’s most recent book—actually a portfolio of loose numbered sheets fitted into an elaborate silk-lined slipcase stained with (believe it!) the artist’s own blood. One might be tempted to think that Ruscha’s ubiquitous humor has struck out at the raft of stain painters who have been populating the current East Coast art scene, with his neat and thorough collection of some 70-odd varieties of stains repetitively and unartistically daubed onto separate sheets of white paper. But I am assured that the portfolio had nothing to do with professional tongue-in-cheek mockery. The stains (all very delicate and ephemeral looking, even to the point of invisibility or chemical decay) range from green grass to urine, mustard, chemical substances, various exotic condiments, or to the less recherché materials like parsley, ketchup, or topsoil. Again, like his books of snapshots, Ruscha takes the well-organized hoarder’s approach and leaves the sociological interpretations to the viewer’s own fantasy.

Emily Wasserman