“I travel a lot, but I don’t come away with new inspiration” – Ed Ruscha
That quote from Ed Ruscha doesn’t really reflect an attitude of disillusionment, or cynicism – perhaps it reflects a revised expectation on the part of Ruscha of what art, and the experience of life generally, can offer. While it may not reflect disillusion or pessimism it doesn’t leave much room for idealism, but perhaps that limited space for analysis, or for the search for a message, is what makes Ruscha’s work so satisfying. Every piece is what it is. You can look at it in the context of contemporaneous trends or movements, but with Ruscha that seems like a pointless effort to theorise after the fact; to intellectualise his work is both superfluous and self-indulgent. Duchamp is often cited as an influence, and there’s a deadpan attitude, similar to that in Duchamp’s Treachery of Images, in – for example – Ruscha’s works showing various slogans or single word messages painted over landscapes.
The small exhibition of Ed Ruscha’s work at National One is an entertaining introduction, combining a number of elements; a sense of commercialism, a certain detachment, and an interest in unexamined or unobservable aspects of urban life. The most striking pieces are selections from series of photographs of hidden or inaccessible views of Los Angeles. Nine Swimming Pools and A Broken Glass, originally printed in book form, shows what you would expect: nine deserted swimming pools – every one of which looks pretty inviting – and a broken glass under water. That’s as visceral as Ruscha’s work gets, and it carries a sense of ingenious manipulation that could be a hangover from his early work in advertising.
Thirty Four Parking Lots shows aerial views of – surprisingly – parking lots, all empty. It would be a cliché to say that these reflect the banality of modern or urban life. What they do is show necessarily flat parts of a city’s infrastructure in a particularly detached way. They’re interesting but uninspiring. That’s not a criticism; there are no hidden messages here, and scope for analysis of the photographs themselves is limited. One shows a baseball stadium at the centre of an enormous lot, another a drive-in movie theatre, the others shops or factories or offices. The most striking aspect of the photographs is a sense of distance between the artist and his subject. J.G. Ballard said “Ruscha’s images are mementos of the human race taken back with them by visitors from another planet”, and that summarises the sense of detachment in these particular images.
The Ruscha exhibition runs until April 2018 and it’s worth a visit – compactly summarising, as it does, the work of a highly influential artist. Ruscha’s work doesn’t carry any inspirational messages – what it reflects is an informed, intelligent and thoroughly likeable jadedness. Don’t expect to be emotionally or viscerally moved – that really doesn’t seem to be the point of his work. Just engage with the sense of detachment, if that’s not an oxymoron.