Ed Ruscha's paintings play with the typography of the US
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
Hayward Gallery, London SE1
If Jack Kerouac had been a painter, he might have painted like the American artist Ed Ruscha. Like Kerouac, for whom the road became a metaphor of freedom, Ruscha has made the landscape of mass American culture the subject of his art. "I'm into the iconography of the country - street stuff and word stuff and highways and ribbons of asphalt," he said
Ruscha's work, which encompasses drawings, prints, artist's books, films and photography as well as painting, has plundered the signs and signifiers of American culture - the graphic lettering of its advertisements and street names, its typography and print media - to redefine our relationship with words and images in a way that is at once playful and profoundly disorientating.
This retrospective at the Hayward, which focuses exclusively on his paintings, assembles seminal works from across the US and Europe to survey each phase of Ruscha's career. Born in 1937, he has been based for all his working life in Los Angeles, a city that he has called "the ultimate cardboard cut-out town" and which has fed his passion for "the raw power of things that make no sense". He has been described as a pop artist, and certainly his 1962 painting Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights, with its red, iconic letters that read "20th Century Fox", suggests an affinity with Warhol, as well as with conceptual art, Dada and surrealism.
Ruscha treats words as objects and forms of still-life; ultimately abstract shapes that suggest as much through their shape, context and typographic use as through their apparent meaning. Light and dark are constant refrains, as are the intimations of mortality suggested in paintings such as Exit (1990) and The End (1991), which reflect his religious upbringing.
Among his most evocative works are the dark silhouettes, which Ruscha describes as "smoky and difficult to see", in which archetypal American symbols - a howling coyote, for instance - show an older, fast-disappearing America. Blank, horizontal bands suggest the erasure of words or the censor's obliterating strip, hinting at the loss of history, roots and collective memories.
“Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting" is at the Hayward Gallery until 10 January