New York

Edward Ruscha

Leo Castelli Gallery

Big, handsome and inscrutable, this exhibition of Edward Ruscha's recent work extends his esthetic of blankness, continuing, as Peter Plagens notes, to “illustrate without illustration, to criticize without criticism” (whatever that means). Much has been written about the trenchant ironies of his Oklahoma origins and subsequent residence in Hollywood, and the ways in which the mute, implacable density and porousness of his practice nimbly deflect critical jargon. In his text works from the ’70s, using spinach, egg yolk, blood, or juice as his medium, he subtly and indirectly mocked the pristine, dogmatic tone of Conceptual heroes such as Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth. His sunny brand of Conceptualism—“Made in U.S.A.” hovering on a ground of Pepto Bismol or his room papered with chocolate in the 1970 Venice Biennale—both embraced and questioned the signifiers of physical substance and language (words as objects); yet his interrogation has long remained more tickle than torture. Participating in that controversial Biennale (many American artists publicly boycotted the government-sponsored event to protest the Vietnam war), his installation offered no overt commentary; viewers interceded by scratching antiwar slogans into the chocolate, and the piece was finally finished by an invasion of ants, hungrily drawn to the Nestlés-saturated paper. This California derivation of Situationism (if such a thing were possible) slyly intervened into the sanctuary of art galleries and museums, holding a rearview mirror up to expectations of institutional critique and acting as a reminder that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

This exhibition, consisting of large-scale paintings derived from film stills of scratchy, frozen images of landscapes and word paintings, continues in the direction of his recent somber, silent work. These black and white airbrushed paintings of murky trees and brooding horizon lines—among them Asphalt Jungle, Western, or The Land Beyond (all 1991)—are quietly inflected by a Teutonic symbology, anchored by the Gothic typeface that spells out the text in This Is It, 1990, or The End, 1991. The banality of evil that paradoxically typified Nazi cultural production tentatively resides in the semiphotographic, smooth surfaces of these works; even as Germany systematically enacted genocide, a nationalist obsession with the purity of landscape and the idealized nude body emerged as a resonant displacement, charted in countless film and photographic images of this period. Ruscha’s perpetually trapped projections—the motionless landscapes dotted by painted film scratches and dust—are cloaked in pungent nostalgia, too obviously invoking the tired nature/culture paradigm. Particularly in the slipping frames of The End, a relentless tail credit served up as a wry reinvention of the apocalyptic end (of painting, of unmediated experience), Ruscha invokes the glacial distance between individual lives and the omnipresent yet distant spectacle of culture.

Teasing out an analogy between contemporary American political displacement and the Nazi disavowal of technological horror with “timeless” images of nature, remains, in the end, an impossible task in this body of work. Ruscha’s big, empty paintings ruminate both on the formal distinctions between the flickering motion of filmic images and painting’s inherent stasis, while intoning a pessimistic metaphor for mass-cultural psychic projection. These dead paintings—tableaux vivants plagued with rigor mortis—stubbornly refuse to step beyond his tidy and inscrutable lexicon.

This show triggers speculation but cleverly sidesteps decisive comment, much like the 1977 work that seems to sum up his project: “No End to the Things Made out of Human Talk.”

Tom Kalin