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Ed Ruscha “Extremes and In-betweens” @Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill

At the Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, “Extremes and In-betweens” deals with the relationship between word and concept, perspective and proportion, macrocosm and microcosm, in a series of paintings all completed in 2016.

Ed Ruscha has been creating minimalist masterpieces since the pop art zeitgeist of the mid-1950s, and over half a century on his work retains its potential to de-familiarise and intrigue. Four of the paintings reprise his earlier Mountain Print fascination with vanishing points and summits enclosed, telescopically, by uneven shadows. The quantities and measurements stenciled on each of these four precede the larger and more subjective units on the bigger paintings throughout the rest of the gallery. Of these, the most memorable piece consisted of a large landscape canvas with seven words aligned on its right-hand side, as if to shy away from the light flooding in from the window to its left.

In “Years Months Weeks”, staggered denominations of time are stenciled vertically in a font of Ruscha’s design, the words printed smaller as you get further down the list until the barely legible “seconds”. It’s characteristic of the best pieces of this collection, with the dun background painted around the stenciled words rather than overlaying the letters – the foreground is thus the ultimate background, the canvas.

This play with perspective reimagines the familiar base of the painting as a negative space that can be framed into meaning. The “lack” that makes up the letters highlights the absence at the root of the measurements of time listed in the painting – years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds. These might be useful frameworks with which to try and order our lives, but they are inadequate and insubstantial when taken as concepts separate from our personal narratives.

The abstract quality Ruscha’s words take on is in part due to their lack of context, and partly due to the bleak background against which they’re read. Supremely interested in how size can stretch the significance of a word, he once famously stated that words “live in a world of no size” – playing around with the scale of words’ fixed forms shifts the focus from their meaning to their presentation. The deconstructionist ideas of 20 th Century philosopher Jacques Derrida are recalled by this shift in focus from signified concept to word-as- signifier of that concept (in this case, units of time). These words only make sense in relation to one another rather than pronouncing some universal truth. Indeed, works like “Universe With Wrinkles” in the same collection similarly insist on the relativity of everything. There is no inherent truth or reality – what Derrida would have termed “a metaphysics of presence” – in the words themselves.

The dusky sepia background darkens in an arc to contrast more heavily with the text, tapering to the bottom right corner as if toward the source of the smoke that obscures the rest of the canvas. Visually directing the viewer to the space below the miniscule word “seconds”, Ruscha points to the infinite regression of decreasing units that conceptually occupy the hazy space between the barely intelligible “seconds” and the empty white walls bellow the canvas. The closer we get to trying to trace the source of such abstractions as “time”, “universe” and “perspective”, the thicker and more obscuring the smog becomes. The link between microcosm and macrocosm becomes ever more strained, and ever more crucial.

It’s surprising quite how much a large, smoky painting with stenciled words can make the sureties of existence unfamiliar and unstable – it is this instability and unfamiliarity that Ruscha is so adept at capturing and prompting. Politically, 2016 has been a remarkably destabilizing year across the English-speaking world – what could be a better time for an artist to capture the volatility at the heart of our least questioned paradigms?

Images © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian.

Universe with Wrinkles, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
72 × 124 inches
182.9 × 315 cm

Years Months Weeks, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
72 × 124 inches
182.9 × 315 cm

Gallery Photo: Mike Bruce

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