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Exhibition of prints, photographs, and paintings by Ed Ruscha opens at the Joslyn Art Museum
Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), Exact, from the That Is Right portfolio, 1989, lithograph, 15 3/8 x 17 3/8 in. (framed), Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian, © Ed Ruscha.

OMAHA, NE.- Word/Play is the first major exhibition to feature internationally-renowned artist Ed Ruscha in his home state of Nebraska. Born in Omaha in 1937, Ruscha lived in the city for several years before his family moved to Oklahoma City. In 1956, he relocated to Los Angeles to study commercial art at the Chouinard Art Institute (now called CalArts), and quickly became a fixture in the highly energized West Coast art scene. Word/Play traces some of the most important developments in Ruscha’s career over the last sixty years, bringing together prints, photographs, and artist books dating from the 1960s through 2015, accompanied by a selection of major paintings. Word/Play opens to the public on Saturday, February 3, and continues at Joslyn through Sunday, May 6.

Mining Ruscha’s incisive reading of the physical and social landscapes of Southern California and the American West, the exhibition highlights his capacity to ennoble the mundane and cleverly transform it into the extraordinary. Central to this theme is the artist’s rigorous engagement with language. An important early figure in Conceptual Art, Ruscha demonstrated a talent for deftly combining imagery and text during his student years. At turns poignant, provocative, humorous, and confounding, Ruscha’s use of the written word has remained a signature element of his work throughout his career.

The earliest works in Word/Play, rarely seen black-and-white snapshots from the 1960s, reveal the realities of urban living in Southern California as Ruscha saw them while driving the streets of Los Angeles. Nondescript apartment buildings, parking lots, gasoline stations, road signs, and other seemingly mundane scenes became central to his artistic vocabulary as his commitment to examining the world around him — in all its glories and banalities — crystallized. Ruscha became increasingly attuned to words — their shapes, sounds, and assumed meanings — while in school and later, during a brief stint as a graphic designer. Fodder for his growing fascination with language seemed to be everywhere. Words filled the billboards that punctuated his road trips and appeared in the films he voraciously consumed. They towered over sleek gasoline stations and were scrawled in faux-elegant script on apartment buildings. For sixty years Ruscha has been giving viewers phrases to chew on—“wall rocket,” “hot rip stop,” “never odd or even,” “sponge puddle” — even as they wonder what exactly they mean. Ambiguity has long been one of Ruscha’s most important creative tools, leading to what has been called the “huh?” effect of his work. By generating more questions than answers, Ruscha challenges viewers to question relationships between language and images.

In the 1980s, Ruscha took a step back from examining Los Angeles to engage the wide-open spaces and majestic panoramas of the heroic American West. He spent five years painting vast skyscapes with low, sometimes indiscernible horizon lines — conveniently proportioned for the longer phrases and sentences that had found their way into his work. Ruscha began using mountains as backdrops for slogan-like words and phrases in the 1990s. Depicted as if seen from below so that they tower over the viewer, these icy peaks appear dramatic, yet for Ruscha they are merely pictorial clichés. Several of the phrases in this series are palindromes, meaning that they read the same forward and backward, such as “Lion in Oil” and “Never Odd or Even.” The textual palindromes in these mirror paintings are echoed in the background imagery, with the left and right halves of the mountains emulating each other exactly.

In a series from the early 2000s, Ruscha again uses mountain as backdrops, this time for the names and occupations of traditional laborers, such as Clarence Jones, who “really knew how to sharpen knives,” and Darlene Phipps, an employee at a plastic salvage yard. In this case, the text in these paintings and prints is entirely unrelated to the sublime topographies that the artist so carefully renders.

For over six decades, Ruscha has documented his rapidly changing surroundings with a critical eye and a dose of deadpan humor. While his commitment to the here and the now often earns him the label of “Pop Artist,” the driving forces behind his work reflect a more nuanced perspective on the current moment. Ruscha brings what is often overlooked into sharp focus, and invites the viewer to look at a common world in an uncommon way.

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