Exhibition Paper, Ed Ruscha – Ashley Ludkowski

Ashley Ludkowski

Ed Ruscha, On The Road

On the Road is an exhibit that boldly confronts the viewer with ‘word paintings’, forcing them to succumb to a gradual connection between the aesthetically pleasing artwork of Ed Ruscha and the written adventure of Jack Kerouac. The California artist, Ruscha, has combined his visual talent with the venturesome composition of Kerouac’s novel, On The Road, more than once in his lifetime. In 2009, Ruscha created a limited edition artist’s book that paired Kerouac’s story with photos he had either taken or found. Now, Ruscha takes on a new ambition and pairs up Kerouac’s words with a body of paintings that removes specific quotes from their surrounding narrative and places them upon large canvases’ where they impressively stand out from their carefully chosen background.

The passages Ruscha chose are not only quirky and mysterious, but embody the overall accomplishment of Kerouac as a magnificently radical author. On The Road is a timeless novel that has touched and inspired the minds of numerous people. Bob Dylan is one of many who took a heavy liking to Kerouac’s novel, even stating how it changed his life once. The novel touched Ruscha in the same kind of way, igniting him to pursue an exhibit like this. Entering the exhibit in Denver, Ruscha’s paintings are displayed separately from the enlarged printings of specific pages of the novel. Personally unaware of what the exhibit was essentially about, it became a game to discover what the relationship between this novel and random quotes were.

The first painting that struck me was Manana. 38.625 X 72 inches, this rather large piece has a background that gracefully carries your eye from the tip of a mountain to vast blue skies. In all caps and white font, above the scene states, “SURE, BABY, MANANA. IT WAS ALWAYS MANANA. FOR THE NEXT WEEK THAT WAS ALL I HEARD – MANANA, A LOVELY WORD AND ONE THAT PROBABLY MEANS HEAVEN.” Without knowing this passage was from the novel, one I have yet to read, I assumed this was some quote either formed entirely from Ruscha’s imagination with no real context surrounding it, or recorded from a meaningful statement from someone. Whatever the case, I immediately began to ponder who said this and what it meant. I did thoroughly enjoy the mystery of the statements before I was able to connect they were from the novel, displayed right on the other side of the wall. This quote was definitely one of my favorites. I found it very intriguing, immediately getting me excited about the rest of the exhibit.

Walking into the exhibit I was drawn to the paintings first, even though I love the written language. The colors and words together on the right side of the room were more exciting than pages of a novel on the left. “IN CALIFORNIA YOU CHEW THE JUICE OUT OF GRAPES AND SPIT THE SKIN AWAY, A REAL LUXURY” was the next painting I was drawn to. This painting had a similar background with a mountain like the previous painting, but this time the blue sky was not blue. The emptiness beyond the quote gradually changes from a deep black at the top of the painting, to a lighter gray towards the bottom. A luxurious quote placed upon a deep background seemed contradicting, almost as if it was a juxtaposition against the wonderfulness of California.

The work began to seem like a critique of the United States. Not even the United States as a whole, but more of a critique of the Western end of the United States perhaps. Stepping over to scan the pages of the novel, it became clear the quotes were taken directly from them. Knowing about Kerouac as an author, I knew this book had greatly affected the community when it came out in 1957. Taking six years to write, the novel is an autobiography of Kerouac’s cross-country adventures. An unforgettable piece, the novel is seen as a clarifying piece of the Beat Generation. Both Kerouac and Ruscha were associated with the Beat Generation, allowing the combination of the two to flourish so wonderfully in this exhibit.

Reading the selected pages of the novel that were displayed along the wall has really encouraged me to check the book out. As an American classic, I have made a note to read it as soon as I get some free time. Because Ruscha took quotes from this book and pair them up with images, I wanted to know more about Ruscha as an artist. In the exhibit there was a book on Ruscha’s art that explained his progression and inspiration as an artist over the years. He has always been drawn to words and phrases, creating ‘word paintings.’ For this exhibit Ruscha only used paint, but in the past he has experimented with a wide variety of materials.

From gunpowder to tomato juice, Ruscha has used these different materials to capture the essence of the words he chooses. I have never known much about Ruscha as an artist, but this exhibit is one that definitely grabbed my attention and will keep me looking into his work. Currently studying to acquire two degrees, one for journalism and another for art, I love when artists combine words into their artwork. The combination of Kerouac’s novel and Ruscha’s artwork was expressive and innovative. I have not seen many artists’ pair up with an author and their novel to create such a large exhibit. The paintings of Ruscha’s are not little pictures that go along with the story, they are an entire exhibit on their own. Hinting at experience, adventures, and travel, I really enjoyed the way Ruscha was able to convey a story of his own, but one that was taken from that of another author.

As an American, currently living in the West, I found I could relate to this exhibit more than if I had never moved to the West. Growing up in Chicago, if I had seen this exhibit there I do not think I would have been as thoroughly involved as I was in Denver. The quotes Ruscha chose made more sense to me as an individual that has experienced something relatable to what they were saying. Having taken a few road trips with my friends around the country, once I realized what the exhibit signified, I became much more involved. The shifting paradigm that occurs within every culture is a non-stop exploration of current affairs. The way in which individuals respond to their surroundings is something I have always been intrigued with.

For Kerouac to record what America was like at the time of his adventure is a great way to engage in one’s surroundings. During this time, the landscape of the United States was in a state of flux. Communities were growing while the nation was getting stronger and more radical as a whole. The way in which Ruscha, who was involved with the same time period as Kerouac, explores the landscape of the United States is extremely similar to Kerouac, yet still very different. Artist’s respond to their surroundings in much of their work. The landscape is such an expansive structure, the way it affects people is often quite moving. Being unaware of the connection between Ruscha and Kerouac, the exhibit was at first a completely different experience to me. Once the two artists work became clearly intertwined, the ability of the landscape to speak to these two artists in their own right was incredible. I really enjoyed what each man offered. The connection between the novel and the images were curiously exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering how much this novel has moved individuals like Ruscha. To brighten the black and white pages of a novel with large, bold, colorful paintings was a great way to get the audience involved. The convergence of these two great minds resulted in a wonderful exhibit that not only creatively explores the changing landscape of the United States, but allows individuals who were not around during this time period to gain an experience of a special and personal part of history.

One Response

  1. HI Ashley,
    I enjoyed your essay on Ruscha! Great job on describing everything in detail. I liked your description of his use of landscape in your article.

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