Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2007
'On close examination, Ruscha's super-real, photographic mountains break up into a complex series of little flat planes of color, similar to a paint-by-number kit or the methods used by billboard painters. The natural appearance of the mountains is only an illusion; rather, Ruscha gives us the 'idea' of a mountain. These works suggest...that the landscape is the product of our culture and conventions, not the other way round.'
Neal Benezra cited in Exhibition Catalogue, Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Miami, Art Museum; Forth Worth, Museum of Modern Art; Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, Ed Ruscha, 2000-02, p. 174
Set against a dusty escarpment rising towards a limitless blue sky, Ed Ruscha's Nerve from 2006 is an archetypal example of the artist's critically acclaimed mountain paintings, which were a highlight of the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting. Combining Ruscha's career-long intellectual inquiry into the visual and semantic possibilities of words with stunning vistas of an American landscape of myth and nostalgia, these paintings form a late high point in his oeuvre.
In Nerve, the relentless sun casting midday shadows and the palette of indigo sky and red soil is highly evocative of the Californian landscape and the dry mountains around Los Angeles. Ruscha moved to the West Coast metropolis in the mid 1950s, driving down the legendary Route 66 in a black 1950s Ford from his small-town childhood home in Oklahoma. This road trip, made when Ruscha was only eighteen years old, proved to be a formative influence on his work. Along Route 66, the endlessly featureless horizon, so beautifully evoked in the rusty hues of the present work, is only occasionally punctuated by the huge billboards which start as specs on the horizon and gradually get bigger until they slide past the window, contemporary signposts of modern America set against the boundless sky and setting sun of the mythical landscape of the Wild West. Seen against the timeless landscape, the words which make up banal advertising slogans for commonplace consumer products – brands of gas, types of aftershave – take on the mythology of their surroundings. It is this iconography, of the landscape as seen from the road, familiar to the beat generation and immortalised by Jack Kerouac's narrator in On the Road, which lends Ruscha's work a distinctly West Coast sensibility endemic to his immediate environment: 'When you're on a highway, viewing the western US with the mountains and the flatness and the desert and all that, it's very much like my paintings." (The artist in Ossian Ward, 'Ed Ruscha Interview' in Time Out London, 12 February 2008).
Isolated and out of context, cinematically emblazoned on widescreen billboards, words take on a surreal presence, their meanings lost or transformed by their incongruous surroundings. They stick in the mind's eye long after they have flashed by the windscreen of the passing car. In Ruscha's paintings their physical supports, the billboards, disappear to leave the words alone, hovering in space, reflecting his experience of them in the desert landscape: "Ruscha's experience on the desert highway was one of words floating in emptiness, their message of comfort attempting to mask the landscape of awe, signs and advertisements trying to fill up the uneasy void of the desert". (Kerry Brougher, 'Words and Landscape' in Exhibition Catalogue, Washington D.C., Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha, 2000-02, p. 158).
When he first moved to Los Angeles in 1956, Ruscha worked as a sign painter and graphic designer. He also worked for an art book publisher, hand-setting the type and working the presses, jobs which fostered his interest in the formal qualities of printed text. At the same time, while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute, he encountered the work of Marcel Duchamp whose cool, anti-art stance provided the necessary foil to the prevalent Abstract Expressionist tendencies of contemporary art practice. On the one hand Ruscha's experiences as a commercial illustrator fostered an interest in the aesthetics of text, its manifold typologies and the formalism of letters as pure shapes worthy of artistic study, on the other the blueprint provided by Duchamp's word games stimulated an intellectual curiosity in found words – linguistic ready-mades – which became the lifeblood of Ruscha's work. His subsequent career-long exploration of the formal qualities of words is totally unique in the History of Art.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Ruscha saw very little fine art in the flesh and was much more influenced by the immediacy of vernacular imagery: comic strips, book design and vivid commercial advertising. Nonetheless, the dramatic American landscape, as seen in Nerve, continues a long line of artistic interpretation of the Californian landscape, in particular the Romanticised landscapes of Albert Bierstadt. A master of Californian light, Bierstadt's broad panoramas depicted an idealised West as a bountiful land of plenty, imbued with a golden luminescence they are deeply poetic images which appealed to the Manifest Destiny aspirations of those in the East Coast cities. In the Twentieth Century, Ansel Adams' soaring images of Yosemite under vast open skies captured a similarly Romantic spirit. Ruscha's landscapes are the inheritors of this genre. From a far, the hyper-realistic depictions are packed with the drama and the beauty of nature. Up close however, they are much more deadpan: "On close examination, Ruscha's super-real, photographic mountains break up into a complex series of little flat planes of colour... similar to the methods used by billboard painters. The natural appearance of the mountains is only an illusion; rather, Ruscha gives us the 'idea' of the mountain." (Ibid, p. 174). Nonetheless, there is something profoundly poetic found in his deadpan approach to contemporary visual culture which chimes with the linguistic play of his paintings. It is this spirit of Duchampian intellectual inquiry, embedded in his vernacular visual culture, which is the hallmark of his best work and which distinguishes him from the Pop tendencies of his peers.
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