Published  10/09/2001

Ed Ruscha: The Mountains

Ed Ruscha: The Mountains

Inverleith House, Edinburgh,
through 14 October 2001.

Ed Ruscha is 63, and Oklahoma born, but the coolest of cool Californian. There is a sublime quality about Ruscha’s ‘Mountains’ in this exhibition, but it is the sublimity of the focused eye; as with Vermeer, Ruscha carefully distances the observer, ‘I’m painting ideas of mountains’. It is the distancing that is chilling, the obscuration of the actual presence of nature, of beauty distilled. The mountain ranges he sources worldwide, but Ruscha ‘supers’ the images with carefully chosen words, such as in ‘American Tool Supply’. The human footprint is a caption over nature. Ruscha creates a tension with this device, even when the smallest word possible, such as ‘Me’ is laid across an icy waste. Sunset Strip LA signs still predominate in source material. Ruscha seems to seek escape from the strips, only then to be drawn back home again to the city.

‘I’m creating (in the paintings) some sort of disorder between the different elements. And avoiding the recognisable aspect of living things by painting words. I like the feeling of an enormous pressure in a painting,’ says Ruscha.

He was evidently much influenced meeting Marcel Duchamp in Pasadena, in l963. On the occasion he was especially struck by the ‘gravitas’ of the elegantly suited Frenchman and by the sense of enigma he created. But Ruscha’s own career, in his view, recognises no real watershed or turning point; it is ‘a variation on a theme. I see that what I’m doing today, I was doing when I was eighteen.’ He still recognises the vitality of street culture as the essential catalyst of inspiration.

The mountain paintings in Edinburgh represent humanity and nature in uneasy coalition. The lettering stands proud, tentatively so, in relation to the snow-capped ranges. Los Angeles is still at the core of Ruscha’s sensibility, and such everyday mundanity as road signage is a reassuring human presence in all circumstances. ‘I like the oddity of nature in the background,’ says Ruscha.

The artist had much earlier explored working out his ideas in alternative media, such as egg yolk, chocolate, blood, so rejecting the hold of paint as such over artists. This method was memorable in his contribution to the l970 Venice Biennale. Today, he appears in masterly frame, and yet wholly consistent in his development over four decades.

On 3 November 2001, a Ruscha retrospective will open at Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.

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