Saturday, December 26, 2009

Anonymous backdrops for the drama of words

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting at the Hayward is a good exhibition, but a depressing experience for any believer in the inspirational possibilites of landscape art.  Room 2 is entitled 'Words as Landscape' and here is what it says on the wall: 'Ruscha often speaks of his word paintings as 'landscapes', and describes their backgrounds as 'anonymous backdrops for the drama of words'.  Pointing out that he is not part of any landscape tradition, he says of The Back of Hollywood, where the word (in reverse) is literally an object in landscape: "my approach to this kind of vista came out of travelling on highways - hitchhiking and driving ... I see things as a moving panoramic landscape, maybe in the same way you might see a movie."'

The landscapes in The Back of Hollywood and similar works like A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) are just a sky and a horizon, painted as empty cinematic clich├ęs rather than images of the sublime. Ruscha's more recent 'Mountain' paintings were inspired by the old Paramount Pictures mountain and many of them are backdrops to text taken from a commercial or urban context - see for example the Tate's Pay Nothing Until April (2003).  The exhibition shows them near paintings that illustrate more directly the banality of the industrial landscape, like Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992).  In paintings like Pay Nothing Until April, Ruscha shows us the distance between real life and the idea of the mountain.  He overlays The Mountain (1998) with just one word, 'The', as if to emphasise the landscape's role as mere signifier.  One reviewer has likened this enigmatic painting to Giorgione's La Tempesta; far-fetched, but Ruscha himself has said that he wants this work to 'toy with your mind'.

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