Exhibition Paper:Ed Ruscha- Nell Pollak

Exhibition Paper:   On the Road by Ed Ruscha

Nell Pollak

“The marriage of image and word in the contemporary urban environment is only one aspect of a subject which goes back to ancient history and forward to mobile phones.” (Tipping, Richard) Several contemporary artists, artists that produce art presently in time that coexist with us, use text as a means of communication in their art.  Ed Ruscha is an example of one of the many artists that have used this approach. In his exhibition On the Road that was recently displayed at the Denver Art Museum, Ruscha wove together visual images and verbal symbols to produce a masterful body of work.

Ed Ruscha, most commonly known as a Pop-artist, was born and raised in the American West. Much of his artistic influences actually come from his Western roots. He is among the contemporary artists who have assisted in shaping the image of the American West. What makes Ruscha’s art, particularly from his On the Road exhibition, unique from many other contemporary Western artists’ work is his radically different take on what Western art can be away from the many cliché, romanticized generalizations of American Western art. Rather than exhibiting images of cowboys and Indians or other Old Western ideas and stereotypes, Ruscha took a radically different approach of portraying Western culture in his On the Roads exhibition by crafting images of texts that deal with more ‘up-to-date’ western experiences. (The Denver Post)

Ed Ruscha’s On the Road exhibition at the Denver Art Museum consisted of images crafted in 2009 inspired by writer, Jack Kourac’s 1957 novel titled On the Road. Kerouac’s thoughts in his novel about his twentieth century, spontaneous cross-country quest to find personal meaning and belonging became an inspiration in constructing Ruscha’s work. Ruscha used actual pieces of text from Kerouac’s novel and superimposed them onto images of snowcapped mountains and abstract backgrounds and displayed them onto large canvases. By doing this, he put a new life to the zealously written words. Ruscha chose quotes from Kerouac and painted them him in his own signature style. He used a block, all-caps font over pretty neutral, yet textured backgrounds. He also used some vibrant hues in some of his images and incorporated images of mountain peaks along the bottom of some of the canvases. He displayed his art in two unique formats. One format was painting and the other consisted of framed book pages. At first glance, the images look very simple but as you journey through each large piece and spend some time with them, the complexness of the ‘married’ images and words become apparent. It becomes clear that each phrase was chosen deliberately for their profundity.

Personally I found this exhibition extremely intriguing. Without any prior knowledge of Ed Ruscha and of this particular body of work, I will say that I entered the exhibit a bit confused and overwhelmed, but as I spent time examining each individual piece I became progressively captivated by the series. I was fascinated by how simple yet complex each image was. I also found the vibrant colors and size of the images very pleasing. Another aspect I enjoyed about this exhibition was the actual museum it was exhibited at. I feel that Denver was a perfect place for this exhibition considering that some of Kerouac’s novel was set in Denver. I feel this little feature intrigued a lot of local followers. Though I was almost completely satisfied with this exhibition, I do have some minor criticisms. Initially I was not too fond of the space in the museum where the work was displayed. I may have been thrown off because I was the only single person in the room viewing this particular exhibit at the ‘museum off-hours’ that I went, but I felt the room I entered was almost too open and filled with empty space. I will say that I found the openness nice in the clean, sleek look it gave the series but I thought a more closed space may have been more successful for this particular body of work allowing a more intimate space for viewers to connect to the art. Lack of direction was another slight grumble I had. It was pretty overwhelming entering this room of enormous canvases not knowing where to begin, not knowing if there was a specific order to examine these images in or if each piece was supposed to stand out in an individualistic manner. All in all though I was pleased with my experience in visiting this exhibition.

One of my favorites of the large canvas acrylic paintings is titled “Manana.” The text on this canvas says, “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 heavan.” I was particularly interested in this piece because of what the image did for the words. With the mountain peak below the words, the words appear more iconic than without. Also the words look bigger than they would in Kerouc’s scroll format due to their scaled size comparatively to the mountain peak and to the canvas. Another interesting aspect of this image was the use of underlining. I thought the underlining of the word “manana” also made the word that much more powerful to this particular passage recited from Kerouac.

Another one of the images I found appealing is titled “California Grapeskins.” This canvas also consists of the large text as iconic above a small mountain peak but this mountain peak appears a little differently. In this piece the mountain peak has a shadow cast on it that almost makes it eerie as it is set against a faded black background rather than the sky blue background “Manana” has. I also found the spacing and size of the words as interesting aspects. The size and spacing of the words in all caps kind of makes the text seem isolated in a sense.

Overall I found Rushca’s exhibit to be a success as it engaged viewers and even stimulated nerdy viewers, like me, to pick up Kerouac’s novel. I respect how Ruscha went beyond how we commonly use or view both language and art in this particular series.

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