“If I’m influenced by movies, it’s from way underneath, not just on the surface.”
A merican pop artist Ed Ruscha often discusses the influence of cinema on his work, deftly deploying the language of film in his paintings. In the book Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall, the artist is cited explaining that the inspiration for some of his alpine landscapes have an unexpected source: “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.”
Ruscha began his Spied Upon Scene series in 2017, recreating the mountainscapes from memory, and inventing scenes rather than depicting any specific place. In some of these works, he would include the words “YES” and “NO”, blurred and smudged, as if they were in motion and about to whizz out of view. The combination of sight and implied sound gestures towards the trans-sensory experience of motion pictures.
A marvelous work from Ruscha’s Spied Upon Scene series, A Scene Through A Window likewise explores representation and meaning, yet this time without words. Even without any textual intervention, Ruscha evokes the dramatic through other cinematic devices. A Scene Through A Window presents a dazzling yet ambivalently obstructed view of the sublime. The narrative unfolds as the borders of the frame encroach upon the transcendent landscape of steep peaks set against a vivid fiery sky, acting as a barrier between viewer and image while simultaneously heightening the drama of the scene.
A Scene Through A Window forces new perspectives and novel readings into the artist’s iconic snow mountain imagery. In the painting, Ruscha employs the strategic device of a thick black frame to interrogate notions of reality and representation. Classic film theories have often described the window or peephole as a metaphor for the medium, from which we can see reality and ideology reflected back, and dramatic action divided by literal frames.
Ruscha’s painting enacts a dialogue with the work of late-19th century American painter Louis Michel Eilshemius, who used halo-esque framing devices to foreground the viewer as observer and voyeur. Eilshemius was discovered by Marcel Duchamp who co-organised the first but only exhibition for the artist at the Société Anonyme in 1920. Despite the endorsement, Eilshemius failed to establish himself during his lifetime, leading to what former associate editor of Frieze magazine Harry Thorne described in 2019 as a posthumous deification: “elevated to that near-mythic status reserved for those neglected during their lifetime”. Admirers of Eilshemius include Louise Bourgeois, Ugo Rondinone, Jeff Koons and Ruscha.
Eilshemius and his framed landscapes would become the subject of the 2019 exhibition Ed Ruscha: Eilshemius & Me at Gagosian, London. In the show, Ruscha displayed his own works, such as A Scene Through A Window, alongside works by Eilshemius from his own collection, drawing parallels between his own work and those of the late artist, such as Fanciful Landscape (1907) and Wading (1919).
It is easy to spot the similarities between the compared works of the two artists, with the picture framing device as the main influence. “My drive in this series was not to create a picture frame but to create an idea that you would be focusing on a trapped vision, like you’re being shown something,” Ruscha said of the exhibited works in an 2019 interview published in Gagosian Quarterly.
“When using that halo effect, of the frame or the peephole, it can be like looking into a window or out of a window. And mine, more or less, look out the window. You might say his look into the window. That makes him a peeping tom. And that makes me just a common observer of landscape.”
The works in the exhibition Ruscha demonstrate how the landscape is a set of ideas, rather than a strict replication of reality. The frame serves to focus and isolate the artist’s vision, constricting the image and defining the area in which the narrative is set to unfold.