"Because it's there."
George Mallory quoted in: "Climbing Mount Everest is Work For Supermen," The New York Times, 18 March 1923, n.p.
Crackling with visual energy and acerbic wit, Mirror-Image Level is a powerful embodiment of Ed Ruscha’s career-long investigation of the icons, signs, and symbols of the Twentieth Century's cultural lexicon. Painted in 2003, Mirror-Image Level is strikingly self-referential in its subtle homage to several of the artist’s most celebrated earlier paintings; cast with Ruscha’s trademark irony, however, these allusions are reflected back upon the viewer in a masterful interrogation of the infinite recycling and re-appropriation of Pop Art. While the short, two syllable word emblazoned across the canvas suggests straightforward legibility, a mirrored composition casts enigmatic doubt upon the palindrome, drawing attention to the pervasive use of ambiguous titles and phrases within our society. A superb example of Ruscha’s acclaimed mountain paintings, the present work emphatically articulates the tension between high and low cultural references and their commercial counterparts that, over the course of the second half of the Twentieth Century, has established Ruscha as one of the most iconic figures of Pop Art.
The series of mountain paintings, a project Ruscha embarked upon shortly before the turn of the millennium, is comprised of some of the most visually striking canvas of his career thus far. The artist sources his snow-capped peaks from the glossy pages of magazines and books illustrating the Himalayas, recreating their imposing summits and shadowy crags in painstaking detail upon his canvases. Without the captions and sidebars that accompany these images in print, however, Ruscha’s mountains acquire the stereotypical quality of theatrical backdrops, resisting any attempt to locate them in time or space. Rather than summoning the scholarly sentiment of National Geographic, the paintings of mountains seem to draw inspiration from the familiar emblem of Paramount Pictures, a majestic mountain peak with a halo of blazing stars. In the artist’s own words, “If I’m influenced by movies, it’s from way underneath, not just on the surface. A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way they’re words in front of the old Paramount Studios mountain…The backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the ‘Hollywood’ sign being held up by sticks.” (the artist cited in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 239) Capitalizing upon the power and superiority inherent to Hollywood, Mirror-Image Level recalls Ruscha’s 1962 painting of the Twentieth-Century Fox logo, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Despite this evocation of Hollywood as powerful visual signifier, the allusion to splendor and success is undercut in the present work by a striking pictorial similarity to the commercial packaging of Peak antifreeze. The brand’s familiar insignia, showing a mountain with blocky white text emblazoned across its front, instantly summons visions of the blue collar mechanics of small-town America. Upon viewing the mountain paintings, one critic remarked, "Ruscha has again undermined any references to the sublime or majestic that the mountains might suggest by comically manipulating them." (Ibid., p. 24) Conceptually agile, Ruscha’s mountain paintings defy easy categorization, constructing a disconcerting contrast between the glossy sheen of the film industry and the mass-produced roar of automobile manufacturing, cleverly defying assignation to any one socio-economic cultural sphere.
Painted in 2003, Mirror-Image Level is an exhilarating articulation of the enigmatic mountain paintings, mirroring Ruscha’s composition back upon itself in a thrillingly elusive paradox. The artist notes, “Usually in my paintings, I'm creating some sort of disorder between the different elements, avoiding the recognizable aspect of living things by painting words. I like the feeling of an enormous pressure in a painting.”(the artist cited in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 241) Using a technique he first employed in the mountain paintings of 2001, Ruscha reflects the shadowy alpine ridge across a central axis, composing a masterful trompe-l’oeil that throws the entire composition into a warped realm of illusionistic tension. The imposing scale and strength of the geologic mass is reversed, as the mountain is forced into facing mirror images, as though in submission to itself; thus distorted, the shadowy alpine crags recall the textural abstraction of Gerhard Richter's Abstrakte Bilder or the chiaroscuro interplay of Jasper Johns' Jubilee. With a sardonic nod to the psycho-analytic qualities of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings, Ruscha casts each of these references back at the viewer in a provocative, visually charged exchange.
Despite the bold simplicity of the single word emblazoned upon Mirror-Image Level, the compositional mirroring of the painting prevents any straightforward notions of reading, seeing, or comprehending. Closer in style to the blocky font of Peak antifreeze than to the elaborate, curling cursive typography of Paramount Pictures, Mirror-Image Level suggests a direct quotation of one of Ruscha's breakthrough paintings of gas stations, such as his ten-foot wide masterpiece Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963, now held in the Hood Museum of Art, New Hampshire. Unlike the straighforward legibility of Ruscha’s sign paintings, however, the palindrome of “Level” is utterly destabilized by the Rorschach-like appearance of the work; standing before the present work, the viewer cannot be certain if he or she is reading a whole word or just a partial word reflected back upon itself. Within the series, Mirror-Image Level is the only painting in which Ruscha combines a mirrored composition and a single palindromic word. In so doing, he dissolves any distinction between word and image, transporting the text out of language and into the interpretive freedom of the visual realm. Even at face-value, the word “Level” is determinedly enigmatic: which level, and of what, and from where? Echoing the contrast between popular and commercial culture typified in the multi-referential mountain backdrop, the phrase seems to question the very cultural and conceptual level at which Ruscha’s painting should be considered.
Executed with the incredible energy and elemental graphic force that typify the artist's electric oeuvre, Mirror-Image Level encapsulates the genius of Ruscha's unique aesthetic vernacular. While constituting a new chapter in his career-long examination of Hollywood and Los Angeles as cultural symbols, the painting refuses straightforward analysis, instead mixing high and low culture with the witty irony that has become the artist’s trademark. As Kerry Brougher notes, Ruscha’s text paintings are “fragments of reality that have been mostly spotted from the artist’s car, these words, when hung together, read almost like signposts along a highway, a landscape seen through the windshield,” as such, the paintings form part of a wider picture of American culture. (Kerry Brougher, "Words as Landscape," in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (and travelling), Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 161) With a self-referential lens, Mirror-Image Level alludes to the artist himself, whose rise to the upper echelons of Pop Art has, indeed, reached the very highest levels of critical and popular acclaim. A veritable Rorschach of references, the present work reflects these associations back at the viewer, engaging us in an intense interrogation of our own relationship to Pop Art, Hollywood, and the American cultural lexicon.
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