Melbourne

“Downtown: Arkley, Rooney, Ruscha”

Heide Museum of Modern Art

As this show demonstrated, Howard Arkley, Robert Rooney, and Edward Ruscha have been working through the paradoxical forms of the (sub)urban abyss for well over twenty years. These artists not only took the demon out of suburbia but, less obviously, made the familiar into something more than Pop defamiliarization achieved through repetition. The quality of emptiness in Rooney’s 19 deliberately clumsy conceptual-minimal photographs of a friend’s car parked in randomly selected locations, Holden Park 1 & 2, 1970, is also evident in Ruscha’s Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, 1962. This quality is the blank, Zen undercurrent originally announced by the Beats. Regional Minimalism and Conceptualism, whether on the West Coast or in Melbourne’s sprawling suburbs, incorporated the lessons of American Pop and “dharma bum” road movies in a weird, anti-imperial balancing act. Rooney and Ruscha’s refusal to attach a particular meaning to their work—along with their encouragement of interpretation—took the form of a profusion of systems, codes, and clues modeled on road maps, street directories, and indexes. For Rooney, who had admired Ruscha’s work since the mid ’60s, the exit from terminal Modernism was to be found through Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and through contacts with the artists who were to become the New York chapter of Art & Language. The idea was to achieve a kind of conceptual art in which the poetic and deceptive qualities of language would be accentuated. Arkley’s air-brushed paintings of freeways and suburban housing estates belong to a much later, extravagantly affirmative disco sensibility. The urban spaces in the work of all these artists are the product of language, and this language, all three artists insist, is spoken in time and space. The city, as curator Juliana Engberg observes, is textual.

Ruscha and Rooney’s art hovered, during the ’60s and ’70s, at the edge of a textual abyss, for the urban environments they depicted were quite consciously perceived both as an emptiness (the photographs are devoid of people and the cities’ inhabitants seem to have gone away) at the heart of art, but also as something compulsively fascinating and radiant. The trajectory of both artists was marked by anxiety that became modified, in the case of Ruscha’s luminous painting of a shadowed hourglass, Time Begun, 1988, by magisterial freeze-framing. Like film stills, such partial images were a type of camouflage: they slipped away into equally articulated negative spaces without any transition.

Precisely because Rooney and Ruscha valued the ability of language to pose as a neutral material and vision’s capacity to masquerade as a transparent medium, it was inevitable that their early paintings would develop from the formalism of postpainterly abstraction. Just as ambiguity and hermetic obscurity were conceived of as inherent properties of painting, so, in artist’s books and photographic documentations, Rooney and Ruscha appropriated textual disruption and the pedantic tropes of Conceptual art itself as pictorial tools in a reflexive, noir “realism” in which everything appeared on the surface. Rooney’s photographs of artificial, repeated actions and Ruscha’s chalky, hypnotically disjointed urban panoramas were, above all, self-consciously opaque objects. The noir regionalism of “Downtown” argued against the Modernist, Minimal, and Conceptual fetishization of clarity, and against the possibility of attaining a grasp of anything—knowledge least of all—through visual art.

Charles Green