ARTYFACTS: December 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ed Ruscha – Hayward Gallery

I’ve only ever seen one or two Ruscha’s at a time, and have never been wholly impressed, but I had my eyes, and mind, opened wide at this retrospective. When you see his work progress, along with his wonderful single sentence explanations, all is revealed – well a lot is revealed.

I used to say that art was firstly visual and you’re not supposed to go and dig deeper into messages. But now I believe it all has to do with tantalising your memory” – now that's interesting, that was the key for me. Memory isn’t one thing, it’s lots of different but connected things. We have semantic memory and episodic memory and several others for that matter. But Ruscha plays with these first two titans of memory. Paintings pull at the episodic or visual components of our memory, but the cognitive interrogation of a picture draws in semantic meanings, words, phrases, descriptions. Your internal semantic voice adds to the perception of contour and colour. This is what the words and images do here.

Ruscha does something very interesting here. He plants a word(s) right in the middle of many of his paintings and so forces you to draw on both the semantic and episodic portions of memory. It then creates a third, forced act of interplay between the image and the word. Either or both can also draw out nostalgia and other nuanced feelings. You need to stand in front of these paintings for some time to move beyond the initial visual hit. In the earlier work the word is the word but in his later work words are the word, or more accurately, words and images are the last word. You switch between the word and image like Necker's cube then see the relationship and even the unity.

Car windscreens

Then you realise that much of what Ruscha sees is seen through the windscreen of a car. He was brought up in the mid-west and then worked for his whole life in LA. He literally saw the world from the inside of a car. And what you see through a windscreen is a clean and silent world of abstract shapes, buildings, landscapes, sunsets and billboard words. It’s a stripped down, side of the road world.

Movie screens

And if it’s not a windscreen it’s a widescreen. The Paramount mountain or 20th Century Fox image are both here and the big foreground titles of the movies against a technicolour background is another way of seeing.

Aeroplane windows

Or in another set you see the world in an isometric view through the window of an aeroplane. The LA grid of roads and street lights overlaid by words.

There are no people here, only observed shapes, landscapes and words. There’s buildings, mountains, small objects, even the entire world, but not one living soul. Only in some later canvases do we see a young girl, howling wolf and horses but vague and out of focus.

Memory. I can sit back, close my eyes and see those paintings still. That’s the achievement.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sacred made real - National gallery

Spanish Taliban
The counter-reformation needed some shock tactics as the chilly iconoclasm of the north crept south and when cornered in the Iberian peninsula art took on a form so extreme that, at times, you feel like averting your gaze. Like a wounded, cornered dog it barks back.

Shock tactics were needed to keep the flock in line so the horror of decapitation, crucifixion and torture is made real. Words were not enough in a semi-literate world, paintings were to flat, so painted sculpture was used to show wounds, blood and fear in three dimensional 17th century technicolour. Hollow cheeked, sorrowful and serious men, and the virgin Mary, were re-created to remind you of the consequences of sin. It worked in a way, and stemmed the tide of protestantism, allowing fanatics like the Jesuits, a sort of Spanish Taliban, to conquer the new world. Martyrdom is venerated and there's no room for doubt.

What of the works on show here?
You know you're in starnge territory aesthetically when you see The Miracle of Lactation in the first room, a painting where the statue of a saint has come alive and squirts milk from her breast a full six feet into the mouth of St Bernard. It's disturbing and debased. In the same room we have the sculpted, wooden, painted, decapitated head of St John th Baptist, with full anatomical detail on the exposed neck.

In room two the painted statues are superb. But this is where we see the fanaticism of saints such as St Francis Borgia and St Ignatius Loyola (founded the Jesuits). You can look them in the eye and let he who is without sin, blink first. Then there's the bitter and twisted Mother Jeronima by Velasquez.

Room three has the Zubaran monks. Not all of his images are of hooded monks, but these are dark and mysterious. In the next room is the true masterpiece, the almost classical Ecce Homo, with his slight twist but strange expression and bloodied and bruised back. The Dead Christ is as shocking as the show gets with his unwashed blood covered body lying prostate.

I was, in the end, relieved to get out of the gallery!