Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York 2003, p. 181
Ed Ruscha’s expertly executed sfumato skyline causes Mean as Hell from 1979 to reverberate with a dynamic energy utterly unique to the artist’s peerless style in which image, symbol and text coexist within the canvas. Throughout his career, Ruscha has explored semiotics and employed various artistic techniques and materials to address how words and symbols carry meaning when juxtaposed with image. Two years before the present work was completed, Ruscha first explored this “grand horizontal” style canvas which was undoubtedly inspired by the rectangularity of billboards, cinema-scope and murals for which he also painted The Back of Hollywood held in the collection of the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Lyon, France. Mean as Hell presents a sweeping sliver of the horizon as ominous clouds hoover above a vaporous blend of varying shades of stormy gray and midnight blue. The strong vertical edges of the vibrant red lettering reading “Mean as Hell” stand out against the various shades of dusky blue as they sweep across the canvas as if they are storm clouds blowing in the wind. The stark contrast between the red lettering and the moodiness of the landscape further heightens the conversation between the text and landscape. Unlike other of Ruscha’s works from this period, the text is more easily legible from a distance while still drawing in the viewer to the canvas as you digest the panoramic view. The immediacy and magnetic pull of Ruscha’s consistently conceptual semantic puzzles are never static; rather, they overflow with tension, providing the viewer clues to achieve an overall understanding of the picture, while pulling away as the viewer is inescapably drawn in.
Ruscha’s landscapes, whether natural or man-made, retain a consistent presence throughout his work, both conceptually and visually. The artist’s earliest works make reference to man-made landscapes such as highways, signs and buildings and later shift to natural landscapes such as blue skies and mountain peaks all incorporating his iconic text. Ruscha explains, “I’m a prisoner of the idea of the landscape in painting and it’s something I’ve continued to be tied to. I have a very locked-in attitude about painting things in a horizontal mode. I think I’m lucky that works happen to be horizontal, that letters follow one another with spaces and pauses and then more letters in order to make up works and sentences” (Ed Ruscha quoted in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York 2003, p. 180). Unlike some of Ruscha’s more site specific landscapes, the sweeping skyline in Mean as Hell is universally encompassing and therefore even worldlier in its message.
The elongated composition of Mean as Hell directly relates to Vincent van Gogh’s much earlier twenty by forty inch canvases in which both artists visually allude to the vastness of the landscape and the endlessness of the sky when painted in this format: “Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows presents a sky that is even darker and more agitated, with a flock of ominous black crows superimposed on the flatly rendered landscape. Evoking a similar mood is a 1979 Ruscha landscape, which features a somber blue-gray sky and a dark ribbon of horizon; in place of black birds, a flock of red letters is emblazoned diagonally across the sky, announcing the title: Mean as Hell" (Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York 2003, p. 181). The rich blue, turbulent sky meets a sliver of the glowing horizon line leaving a majority of the composition overflowing with clouds as far as the eye can see similar to Gerhard Richter’s photorealistic depictions of wispy clouds and endless blue sky.
As with all of his work, Ruscha takes great interest in semantics. The artist’s training as a graphic commercial artist is evident in his unique vernacular of words influenced by the booming advertisement industry, magazines, Hollywood and popular culture. The simple yet fierce text seen in the present work pulls from a Johnny Cash song of the same title in which Cash sings about the rough and tumble nature of the vast, open road and all the ‘mean as hell’ people and species you meet along the way. These words read across the canvas as if a landscape of their own, which Ruscha explains, “The reason I’m happy with these pictures is because, even with the width of the canvas, I’m able to miniaturize things so that there’s almost thousands of miles between the left side of the canvas and the right side of the canvas...The lettering also brings you down to the miniature aspect of it. That’s why the letters are no larger than they are...It has to do with the fact that our eyes run in a horizontal line. There is a big difference between vertical movement and horizontal movement. I seem to be on horizontal movement, and I’ve been here for years” (Ed Ruscha quoted in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York 2003, p. 181). Mean as Hell perfectly consummates many of the hallmarks of Ruscha’s remarkable oeuvre marking it as a truly significant painting from the artist’s ongoing career.
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