By Jim Bliesner
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCASD ) opened their new exhibit Friday evening January 29th at the La Jolla location. The paintings of Ed Ruscha and Alvaro Blancarte were presented in the Museum’s two main galleries.
The opening reception was crowded with an eclectic mix of members and non-members. Jazz sounds by the New Jazz Trio were only interrupted by speeches and acknowledgments by Museum staff and the artists themselves. The bar had three lines all evening although drinks were not allowed in the exhibition spaces.
It’s always curious what people experience or are seeking at an art opening in a museum. Marlena Dinklage of La Jolla and Germany says she comes just for the party and to remember all of the times she has brought her child and his friends to the Museum on Sunday afternoons over the past ten years.
She was sitting watching the crowd and viewing Ruscha’s work. “I like it because it is not too abstracted with a mixture of everything and it’s not boring. I could put it in my house and I would not have to change anything because the colors are gentle and soft. I like the museum a lot and its close connection to the community. It’s a nice place to socialize and let kids experience art.” She has been a member for ten years.
John or as he is known artistically “one6zero” was seated, dressed completely in white, a leather jacket, watching the crowd and scanning the images. “I want to take a photo of that painting because Ruscha uses the number 38 in it and that’s the year my dad was born. I want to send it to him.” John is an artist and has a studio at Space4Art downtown but he is thinking that he could work out of his house and save the money.
He comes to the La Jolla Museum openings because “there’s a lot of hot chicks walking around”. He does scrap metal sculpture but unlike Ruscha he has not tried using words in his work yet. “I’d like to see some Japanese letters in metal or in his work. I was in this museum once with my work. I brought it in and took my picture with the piece in the gallery so I can say I was in a museum. They let me do it.”
Two students from UC Santa Barbara had driven all the way down just to see this work by Ruscha. They were standing entranced by an image of a restaurant sign — Norm’s — sinking into a black liquid. “Norm’s is an abnormal place and the liquid is a comforting place and it’s content to be pulled into it.”
They had discovered Ruscha about three years ago when they learned about words in paintings as a school of work. Keir was studying science and Sonny was studying art. “Ruscha captured California like no other artists. I’ve never seen more than three of his paintings together and so this show is overwhelming, just …” exclaimed Sonny.
Gabriel, a student at High Tech Hi was at the bar with a SLR camera across his chest. “I came because my dad had a date but I got to take some photos of people and pictures that I think are interesting.” He was standing near the bar. The three lines snaked back into the large entryway of the Museum and the jazz band played softly. The image almost seemed like a Ruscha SoCal painting including the subdued, clean, subtle colors of the attendees at the show. It was as though they had dressed for the period or perhaps the experience of the work in the other room had colored my perceptions, except there were no words in it.
Ruscha studied commercial art at Chouinard, according to Kathryn Kanjo, Deputy Director of Arts and Programs. She said on her guided tour three days after the opening that “actually the show was conceived of by Richard Marshall, a Museum trustee and former curator at the Whitney.” “Then and Now” has work from the “ACE” piece done in 1962 to work done in the 2000s. They skipped the 70-80 and 90s work.
Ruscha produced work right in the vortex of the Abstract Expressionist movement that swirled through Los Angeles for many years. “He was known for inserting words or using text pictorially versus directed words” said Ms. Kanjo. He used monosyllabic words as “power” words. He conveys space and time in his paintings by slanting words such as ‘ACE’ and sinking it into the canvas with thick paint.”
According to the statement on the wall at the entryway to the exhibit Ruscha “first gained attention in the 1960s for works that combine text and image with dead pan takes on American vernacular culture”. He published a book of photos of Sunset Strip and shot portraits of all the restaurants he saw in LA. He was also a printmaker focused on the same cultural icons of the period.
Fundamentally he remained true to his roots as a commercial artist and was able to bridge the gap between that trade and style to the fine art world. His skills came from his training as a commercial artist. He could use words to express emotion and could draw precisely what he wanted to project in much the same way that a commercial artist does for a commercial product.
These skills are often not available in art schools today and seem unique and appropriate for museums. His interest in architectural images and use of iconic structures, period pieces as a metaphor for a mood, was indicative of a young artist aware of the uniqueness of his surroundings. In time these stylistic portraits have become iconic and add to the artist’s role as a chronicler of his environment. These may be the strategies that have made Ruscha iconic himself because the cityscape of Los Angeles in that period has itself become iconic and frozen in time.
Not all artists or classmates of Ruscha at Chouinard had the same experience, or as one of those, Walter Gabrielson in his autobiography “Persistence” put it:
Jim Turrell and I have agreed that airplanes and art both represent a form of risk that can be just as lethal. Airplanes we know. Art can be more subtle because it takes longer for the dangers to become visible. I knew from my experience and observations of the woes of others the gradual turn to anger and bitterness and the subsequent graveyard spiral of buoyant, energetic, creative artists of my generation. In short, it is a case of not enough support to go around for all those who practice art, the lack of resonance of our culture to art and the expectations of all the players exceeding any ability of the art world to deliver on them. It is a tough business if you could even call it a business. Success is not becoming famous, success is…..surviving!
Ruscha has done that and this show is a testament to that perseverance. “Then and Now” will be at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art until April 24, 2016.
Photo credit: Jim Bliesner