The Mesmerising Gunpowder Art Of Mr Ed Ruscha
Installation view of Ed Ruscha: Ribbon Words at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, LLC. Photograph courtesy of Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, LLC. © Ed Ruscha
A new book celebrates the influential California-based artist and his smaller, subtler drawings.
Nebraska-born, California-based painter, photographer and conceptual artist Mr Ed Ruscha has had a stealthy influence on the latter half of the 20th century, using his work to blur the boundaries between advertising, graphic design and art, and in doing so slyly reflecting a world in which these boundaries are increasingly non-existent. His most well-known pieces are paintings, in which gnomic phrases float, like T-shirt slogans, against idealised backdrops of warm sunsets and mountain ranges. These canvases’ wry evocation of the language of advertising (empowering messages, inspiring scenery) have meant that Mr Ruscha is often discussed under the banner of pop art. But his work is far more wide-ranging, warm and humorous than that term would suggest, encompassing photographic art books, such as 1963’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and 1969’s photographic short story Crackers, as well as an extensive range of quietly enigmatic drawings, executed early on in his artistic career, in graphite and gunpowder.
A spread from Ed Ruscha: Ribbon Words (Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art). Left: PIG, 1970. Right: PILLS, 1970. © Ed Ruscha
This month sees the publication of Ed Ruscha: Ribbon Words, the first book to focus on this particular subset of Mr Ruscha’s drawings, each featuring a single word rendered as a floating, ribbon-like 3D shape. Following an exhibition of the same name this summer at New York’s Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art gallery (which included many of the works Mr Ruscha exhibited at his first New York solo show at Alexandre Iolas gallery in 1967), the book presents an overview of these mesmerising images, in which words like “Freedom”, “Respect” and, obscurely “OKLA” are rendered and deconstructed by being transformed into sculptural effigies on the page. The mesmerising, 3D quality of each image is achieved by Mr Ruscha’s technique of gradually building layers of gunpowder (soaking the pellets and applying with cotton buds – a technique he found more versatile than using graphite), to which, in some drawings, he adds sickly pastel colours, heightening the surreal quality of these oddly curling shapes.
For fans of Mr Ruscha’s more famous, and more giant, paintings, the book provides an opportunity to discover a more intimate side of the artist. For anyone less familiar with his work, meanwhile, it’s a great introduction, featuring a prefatory essay by New York style guru and Interview Magazine’s original editor-at-large Mr Glenn O’Brien. For Mr O’Brien, Mr Ruscha’s fascination with words is what gives his work an enduring appeal. “Words don’t become dated the way fashions, or hairstyles, or cars, or buildings do,” he writes. “Ruscha has spent his entire career attempting to make work that not only looks timeless, but achieves an outsider perspective, dismissing the accidents of the moment and achieving a sort of Platonic independence, a playful but determined objectivity.”