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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

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis