Ruscha began his series of now iconic Metro Plot paintings in 1998, starting with static grisailles depictions of recognizable Los Angeles boulevards from half elevated vantage points. Depicting a network of Hollywood streets just South West of the intersections shown in the present work, Santa Monica, Melrose, Beverly, La Brea, Fairfax, is one such work from this year that now resides in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Recalling the artist’s famous photographic Panorama of 1966, Every Building on Sunset Strip, the limited set of street map paintings that Ruscha created intermittently over the next five years valorized the fallacious sense of infinity conjured by the sprawling grid system of Los Angeles, as well as the ubiquitous Thomas Guide books once widely used by those who traversed its streets by car. During the years of 1998-1999, Ruscha expanded his purview to cover American highway routes outside of California, and it is in the present work that he returned firmly to Los Angeles as a subject. Boasting the largest format in the series, Cosmo, Selma, Vine is also one of his most specific and focused works in terms of subject. Moving away from famous avenues such as Sunset Boulevard, this selection of lesser-known roads seems arbitrary yet personal at once, presenting a certain lack of familiarity to call into question the realities of scale and distance in opposition to the perceived distortions of perspective. Ultimately Ruscha evokes the instructive nature of a map but ultimately provides a sense of disembodied futility as such stark minimalism fails to reveal any detail and the close cropping denies greater context. Ruscha thus forces a psychological reconceptualization of space through a perceptive muddling that plays to a sense of the uncanny - a tendency at the heart of his practice, where a sense of the familiar and the alien coincide.
Witnessing disembodied words and signage in the desert landscapes surrounding Route 66, Ruscha’s experience of travelling in America by car formed a stronghold of inspiration since his early career. As Ruscha has noted “A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words.” (Ed Ruscha quoted in Richard Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 239) While Ruscha’s earlier City Lights series, such as the present work, played with oblique birds-eye views of cityscapes, in the present series Ruscha revels in the synthesis of word and image offered by maps rather than privileging the autonomy of linguistic phrases. This translates spatially, in the mimetic angling of road and word, as well as conceptually by connoting a geographic other.
Crucially, the uncomfortable cerebral vantage point that Ruscha adopts neatly mimics the geometric construction grid of optical linear perspective, where lines recede into the picture plane to construct an illusion of depth. As a stronghold of academic drawing since its schematization by Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century, Ruscha’s oblique half-commitment to the system of illusionistic depth also speaks to the gradual ‘flattening’ and re-appropriation of the grid by modernist painters, best exemplified by the two dimensional grid constructions of Piet Mondrian. As noted by Dave Hickey, Ruscha “adapts the Jefferson grid of American city-planning to the conceptual grid of European modernist painting and acknowledges the dissonance between them.” (Dave Hickey, Exh. Cat., Beverly Hills, Gagosian, Ed Ruscha: Metro Plots, 1998, n.p.) Above any other global city, Los Angeles boasts amongst the greatest examples of modernist architecture in the buildings that compose its visual landscape, as well as the vast sprawling network of activity created by its gridded streets. Usurping the utopianism of the modernist project, or perhaps highlighting its gradual erosion into archaism, Cosmo, Selma, Vine pertains to what Hickey had termed “the potential entropy of things remembered in the process of being forgotten.” (Ibid., Dave Hickey) Both nostalgically alluring, yet gritty and vacuous, Ruscha’s duplicitous post-modern city view reconsiders the possible synthesis of utility and elegance – of art and life – and constitutes the artist’s ultimate ballad on the nature of contemporary urban existence, in both its material and cerebral states.
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