“The End:” shimmering through an ethereal haze, the graceful curlicues of the words emblazoned upon the canvas of Light Leaks simultaneously suggest the nostalgic finality of a bygone era and the alluring promise of a fascinatingly enigmatic narrative. A fittingly elusive emblem, the phrase offers a profound embodiment of artist Ed Ruscha’s career-long investigation of the imagery and semantics that define, shape, and embody Hollywood within the American pop culture vernacular. Painted in 1993, the present work was notably illustrated in an issue of Grand Street, the revered literary magazine founded by Jean Stein; creating an exceptionally cinematic narrative for the present work, Walter Hopps, the art editor of Grand Street and Stein’s mentor, had previously served as the founder and director of the iconic Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where he gave Ruscha his first one-man show in 1963. Following its inclusion in the 1994 “Hollywood” issue of Grand Street, Stein acquired Light Leaks for her personal collection. As though cast upon a massive illuminated screen, the shadowy letters effortlessly summon the familiar final frame of Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s, the italicized script appearing to flicker through the faint lines and flashes of an antiquated film roll as, behind an unseen curtain, the projection reel whirs towards the end of a spinning cylinder of negatives.
With two familiar, three-letter words, Ruscha stages an exquisitely composed arrangement of form, light, and shadow that powerfully invokes the faded glamour of Hollywood’s golden age. Light Leaks is a superb example from the limited series of paintings by Ruscha displaying the theatrical slogan “The End;” first conceived by the artist in 1991, examples of The End paintings are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Museum in London, amongst other prominent public and private collections. Precisely centered upon the ghostly canvas of the present work, the shadowy letters echo the split second of a film projection upon the big screen, an effect of instantaneity further enhanced by the silvery flashes and vertical streaks that resemble the tiny scratches, scrapes, and particles of dust that can mar film and projector lenses. The lyrical title of the present work references the pearly glow cast upon the right edge of the canvas, which the artist describes as an echo of “the filmic effect of light leaking from a projector.” (Ed Ruscha, “The End (portfolio),” Grand Street 49, 1994, p. 120) While the narrative which has come to a close can only be imagined, the suggestion of cinematic drama is clear; remarking upon his fascination with the American film industry, Ruscha notes, “If I’m influenced by the movies, it’s from way down 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 mountain... I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, 2004-05, p. 21)
Ruscha’s training as a graphic commercial artist after moving to Los Angeles in 1956 is evident in his unique vernacular of works influenced by the booming advertisement industry, magazines, Hollywood, and popular culture. Ruscha’s paintings The Back of Hollywood, 1977 and Hollywood is a Verb, 1983, both convey a similar sense of theatrics and an emphasis upon text juxtaposed against a muted, ethereal background. The ambiguity of Ruscha’s dead-pan text paintings, whilst chiming with their commercial and social counterparts, draws attention to the banality of such statements and demands, with some irony, a deeper explanation of their meaning. However, rather than merely critiquing American culture, Ruscha taps into the peculiarity of cultural norms to inhabit the space between semantic meaning and visual power; in essence highlighting, even celebrating aspects of our surroundings that we might otherwise overlook. Indeed, his appropriation of the commonplace, and its subsequent transcendence into fine art, chimes with the iconic work of such Pop artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Barbara Kruger, who worked simultaneously with Ruscha throughout much of the late Twentieth Century to deepen the artistic exploration of the changing commercial world. Describing the significance of this series in Grand Street magazine alongside an illustration of the present work, Robert Mahoney remarks: “Edward Ruscha, having learned from Las Vegas how to turn the dream of Pop to a logo on the horizon, or to a word to contain the energy of the moment, having also found the informe in information and the la-la in L.A., has always known something of the onset of darkness. At the end of the Pop era (and of the century), Ruscha’s art, and particularly The End…plays an endgame for Pop. And cliché aside, Ruscha’s art projects the remains of the day in a format that is in tune to the flow of meaning at the end of things.” (Robert Mahoney, “Edward Ruscha: The End,” Grand Street 49, Summer 1994, p. 121)
The poignant sense of finality embodied in Light Leaks, both visually and semantically, conveys a wistful nostalgia for an era of Hollywood glamour fading into impending obsolescence. By summoning the imagery of cinematic technology long antiquated, Ruscha infuses his painting with an alluring ephemerality, reminding the viewer that all narratives, even those merely imagined, must come to an eventual close. Describing the series, curator Ralph Rugoff notes: “With their velvet and sootiness conveying a softening of focus (and an entropic rise in noise levels), these pictures speak to a fading collective memory, or alternatively, to a spectral aspect of an increasingly homogenized and indifferent contemporary landscape.” (Ralph Rugoff, "Heavenly Noises", in Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, 2009, p. 23) Speaking several years after the creation of the present work, Ruscha poetically described his tendency towards nostalgia as a belief that “seeing things age is a form of beauty.” (Ruscha in Tracy Bartly, "Seeing Things Age is a Form of Beauty: A Conversation with Ed Ruscha", in Ed Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1998, p.358) Indeed, the melancholy grace of the present work suggests, in its very specificity, the inevitable decay of cultural recollection; describing the suggested flickering of these paintings, the artist continued, “I’ve always remembered that—it’s a particular phenomenon of films that I like. If someone seventy-five years from now looks at this painting they won’t understand it at all. It’s depicting a kind of mechanical defect which will not even be in our language.” (The artist cited in Helen Fetherstonhaugh, “Interview with Edward Ruscha,” Coutts Contemporary Art Awards 1998, Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation, Zurich, 1998) Executed with the incredible subtlety and incisive significance that typify Ruscha’s iconic painterly oeuvre, Light Leaks fuses image and text in a masterful, arresting homage to the poignant presence of an almost forgotten past in our ever-shifting present.
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