Text by Rebecca Travis
PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL screams the sign outside of The Hatton Gallery.
Initially I wonder whether measures to counteract the funding cuts are already upon us, but it is merely a poster image for Ed Ruscha’s current show and proof that his play on vernacular slogans is so well observed that they can be mistaken for actual signage.
It’s great to see an artist with Ruscha’s cult status being shown at The Hatton, as it’s a gallery that often seems overlooked and one that will be affected greatly by the aforementioned cuts. In this case it’s a venue totally apt in context to display Ruscha’s brand of West Coast Pop, as it retains strong links to the Pop Art movement via Richard Hamilton who studied, taught and exhibited within the building. Though specifically notdescribed as a survey show, the Artist Rooms exhibition brings together paintings, prints and photographs that span Ruscha’s career.
Much of the show is dedicated to the ‘word paintings’ with their slogan-like use of text and typography, a graphic style of working that he has employed since the early 1960s. These works retain an incredible impact and in a world where we are constantly inundated with visual information and advertising from every available medium, they seem as relevant now as ever before. The first on view as you enter the gallery is The End #40 (2003) taken from a series alluding to the final credits of motion pictures, complete with authentic scratches and split frames. This version is in traditional typeface which has been part obscured by overgrown yellowish grasses. It has the appearance of a forgotten grave; perhaps it represents a rather bleak forecast for the future of cinema? Other more recent typeface works juxtapose sublime mountain landscapes with banal advertising slogans and snippets of dystopian literature in Ruscha’s custom font ‘Boy Scout Utility Modern’, his own reworking of the cult ‘Hollywood’ signage.
Hollywood pervades Ruscha’s work, from his photographic collections of buildings on Sunset Strip and swimming pools to his filmic references. Standing in front of a grid of his pool pictures I am struck by how alluring they are. They immediately bring to mind David Hockney’s glossy California pool paintings, yet these are taken at everyday motels, not swanky private residences. With their lack of human presence they become ripe with the potential for seediness and as with much of Ruscha’s work a sense of darkness lies beneath the Hollywood lustre.
The use of the bland and banal is also a recurring theme, which is perhaps what makes his work so appealing. His surroundings are the epitome of what many consider to be glamorous, yet he chooses to focus on parking lots, gasoline stations and road junctions. He makes LA feel just like any other place, and the manner in which he presents his findings are so well designed and executed, whether in painted, printed or photographic form, that you cannot help but be drawn to them. This comprehensive exhibition demonstrates how Ruscha cleverly treads the line between manipulating the bombast and allure of LA culture while simultaneously critiquing the very nature of it, allowing you a glimpse into his urban experiences of the last fifty years.
Ed Ruscha – ARTIST ROOMS ON TOUR is on display at Hatton Gallery, Newcastle until 22 May 2013.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.