Ed Ruscha: Extremes and In-betweens, Gagosian, London — overview

“Words reside in a planet of no size,” Ed Ruscha has observed. “You can make them any size and what’s the genuine size? Nobody knows.” Such lucid innocence is usually the prerogative of geniuses or small youngsters. But if we’re lucky, it also animates our fine conceptual artists, of whom Ruscha is undoubtedly 1.

The Los Angeles-based artist’s most recent paintings, at present on show at Gagosian’s new gallery in London’s Grosvenor Hill, spin the above insight into a surreal, optical poetry. Produced this year, nearly all of them display pyramid-like scales of words whose descending size mirrors their meaning. “Universe”, for instance, is stencilled in a massive white font at the top of a list that encompasses “America”, “Tampa Florida”, “Back Bedroom”, “Dust Bunny” and “Static Electricity”. “Silence” is writ huge — Ruscha constantly gets his priorities right — above “Commotion”, “Racket” and “Peak Volume”. That the final word, which surely summons some apocalyptic cacophony, is illegible is no error of judgment. Ruscha is a painter who when said that each operate he created would be “completely premeditated”.

The meticulous however insouciant linguistic slopes at Gagosian are inscribed on plain grounds painted in hues of grainy dun brown, astral grey and dusty black. Here and there a wrinkle or fold disturbs the empty prairies. At instances, they are juxtaposed with painting of scraps of wooden planking, as if Ruscha is telling us that any old surface will do for a humble signwriter like him.

‘Silence with Wrinkles’ (2016)

That capability to produce high art out of low approaches and signifies has created Ruscha as enduring and crucial an artist as any operating these days. Now in his 79th year, he did certainly begin out coaching to be an industrial painter when he moved to Los Angeles from his house town of Oklahoma City in 1956. Within a decade, however, he’d segued into the Pop/Minimalist/Conceptual zeitgeist. His early paintings slapped vast words — “Boss”, “Smash”, “Noise”, “Space” — on monochrome backgrounds. With photographic books such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963) and Each and every Developing on the Sunset Strip (1966) allied to his seminal painting of the Hollywood sign (1968) at sunset as if dipped in the faux-gold of the collective American dream, he stamped himself as the Californian painter par excellence.

Over the decades, the versatility of his media — he has created photography, prints, artists’ books, and has even painted in blood — has in no way diluted the clarity with which he continues to demonstrate that the bond between language and which means is supremely vulnerable. “I like the concept of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word once more,” he when said.

The very best of these new operates flirt with our eye, obliging us to draw close in order to study the smaller text, then unsettle our thoughts when we get there. Often the journey is beguiling. Set against a sandy ground, “Sun/Earth/Texas/Horse/Hoof” is a marvellously unexpected declination, as if a benign visual-art equivalent of Cormac McCarthy were leading us out into the desert which, Ruscha has frequently mentioned, is his favourite landscape.

‘Sun, Atom’ (2016)

But it is unlikely that McCarthy, the American author known for his explorations of his country’s psyche at its darkest and most existential, would have come to mind at all when we contemplated Ruscha’s perform a decade ago. Then, the painter’s zany, ethereal lyricism still had the laconic playfulness of a single who prefers to rise above gritty sociopolitical realities.

These paintings really feel bleaker, sadder, as if Ruscha has finally plugged himself into the gloomy massive picture. One chops up the words for numbers — “Tril/Bil/Mil/Thou” — so that their endings appear to have plunged off the edge of the canvas in what is surely a metaphor for wealth’s crucial frailty. An additional begins “Bio” and steadily shrinks the word until “biology’ is spelt out at the bottom like a tiny death sentence.

Ruscha has stated repeatedly how a lot he fears for his country’s social and environmental future. This new operate isn’t perfect. Many of the photos add practically nothing to what their a lot more potent fellows are reaching, and their almost uniformly large size, though acceptable for Gagosian’s capacious galleries, creates a leaden cadence. But it’s exciting to see an older artist acknowledging that anxious occasions demand a response, and taking dangers with feeling and intensity as a outcome. Ruscha mustn’t retire into the desert just but.

To December 17, gagosian.com

Section: Arts