Ed Ruscha’s Pop Prints: Conversational English, Car Culture, and the American West

Ed Ruscha is known for his unconventional use of simple linguistic elements, rendering drawings of incendiary words with gunpowder, pictures of gas stations and museums on fire, and simple conversational phrases made mysteriously profound. The Los Angelino artist and printmaker currently has an exhibition at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press that includes three new etchings, two earlier prints, and a 2009 portfolio. Here, Ruscha shows an eclectic selection of his oeuvre, including a landscape, homages to highways, and two-word idioms.

In his text-based works, Ruscha uses the iconography and vernacular of Americans. He plays as much with the visual idioms of Pop art as he does with the intellectual richness of Conceptualism. Ruscha is a luminary of the late 20th century, particularly of the quixotic and offbeat California art scene.

In the new set of prints, Ruscha uses pairs of rhyming words that appear to shrink or recede into the center of the page, which is divided by a thick, unprinted band. The prints are made as flat-bite etchings, which causes the accumulation of pigment at the edges of the blank block letters. In Real Deal (2014), the pale blue ink clings to the borders of each word. In this, as  well as Zoot Suit (2014) and the dramatically pigmented Rain Gain (2014), the lettering takes on a sense of drama reminiscent of advertising and movies.

As with peers such as John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, Ruscha elevates simple phrases through his visual allusions, lending them added significance, both as text and as visual forms. Ruscha has described words as images, saying “I have always felt attracted to anything that had to do with that phenomenon of people speaking to each other . . . so I visually took that on as material.”

Ruscha’s 1982 print Indecision uses three phrases laid over one another, as if a person’s thoughts were trampling over one another. Rendered in three different sizes and in different colors, they remain distinct, creating a cascade of visual layers, similar to the fore-, middle-, and background of a conventional landscape. Ruscha has made landscapes, typically with text or signs embedded in them, like Desert Gravure (2006). It shows a “No Trespassing” sign in the middle of a barren scrubland—the only means of prohibiting movement in an otherwise free and open expanse.

Movement, of text and of people (especially in cars), is an important motif for Ruscha, who looks as closely at space as he does the page. Motor City, a 2009 portfolio of aquatints, commemorates the freedom of the open highway by using the typographic and iconic logos of U.S. car companies, and specific models: Ford, Chevy, Cadillac, Chrysler, and others. His love of the open roads, skies, and land of the West is condensed into these precise symbols. As in all of Ruscha’s work, letters and signs take on more than their concrete meaning, and yet are abstract and free.

—Stephen Dillon

Ed Ruscha” is on view at Crown Point Press, San Francisco, Apr. 7 – May 29, 2015.

Discover more artists at Crown Point Press.

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