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.
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.
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.
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.