The Richard Levy Gallery is hosting an exhibition of works by Ed Ruscha, born in 1937, and John Baldessari, born in 1931. Both of these California-based pioneering contemporary artists began as painters and moved through a variety of media during their long and well-lauded careers.
Ruscha and Baldessari have absorbed the West Coast American car culture as well as the lifestyle surrounding Hollywood’s fascination with rising and falling movie stars. The exhibition exudes a misleading quietude that belies the snap, crackle and pop cultural content.
The works by Ruscha, including lithographs from his “Archi-Props” series and silver gelatin prints from his “Sunset Strip” series, are from the 1990s while Baldessari’s altered photographs date from 2009.
Both artists revel in the banality of California street culture and its never-ending summertime sunshine.
Though I was first steeped in Ruscha’s American art ambiance during a lecture he gave at the University of Washington in the late 1970s, I really didn’t become a fan until art critic Dave Hicky included one of Ruscha’s films in “Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism” biennial at SITE Santa Fe in 2001.
The gist of Ruscha’s American epic was the rebuilding of a Ford Mustang carburetor in a one-car repair shop.
However, through his depiction of the hapless mechanic who had a high-maintenance girlfriend and a penchant for wanting to re-engineer and second guess the boys in Detroit, Ruscha masterfully encapsulated the American gearhead culture, which is crude, colorful and sometimes ingeniously creative.
During the telling of the story both the humble garage and mechanic were transformed from dirty and cluttered into pristine and organized to science lab standards. Ruscha revealed himself as a master narrator who clearly understood the American automobile subculture.
Ruscha’s “Archi-Props” lithographic portfolio contains eight black-and-white prints that act as vignettes in a larger narrative. Each image includes a word cue and piece of urban architecture ranging from a complete auto parts store to a close-up of a phone booth.
Ruscha has long been fascinated with the diagonal compositional design that he carries through these prints.
His breakthrough painting in this regard was “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” in 1963. The work with its uncompromising diagonal thrust was inspired by New York pop artists as well as works by Edward Hopper from the 1940s.
The Hopper touch can still be found in Ruscha’s “Archi-Props (Image #3),” a depiction of a section of a telephone booth. Both Hopper’s rendering of artificial light sources as well as Ruscha’s love affair with diagonals are found in this lithograph.
The selections from Ruscha’s “Sunset Strip” series of photographs are both nostalgic and edgy. In “Sunset Strip (Gazzarri’s),” Ruscha shot the image in 1966 but did not create the final print until 1995.
The vertical streaks that seem arbitrary are homage to the artist’s abstract expressionist roots as well as a rebellion against the finish-fetish artists that blossomed in Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s.
Baldessari has worked within a huge range of media over the years but gained recognition for his long series of altered vernacular photographs taken from postcards and other found sources. In this exhibition he is altering his own photographs with large hand-painted circles that act as symbols of censorship as well as independent elements within the composition.
His newer works with discs of paint are reminiscent of the black rectangles that 1940s and 50s scandal magazines placed over the eyes of alleged celebrities to create intrigue as well as the large ball that was featured in “The Prisoner,” a British television series aired in the late 1960s.
During that series the prisoner known as “Number Two” would attempt an escape only to be tracked down and stopped by the large sphere.
In Baldessari’s recent work the carefully painted circles act as defining elements as well as masks. In past work Baldessari created emphasis by masking out all the non-essential details and thereby enhancing the remaining images.
In this newer series the viewer is left with a peep show and may want to roll the circle out of the way, but in works like “National City (W,1,2,3,4,5,6,B),” the image of a tire and alignment shop is filled with wheels and other circular items that make Baldessari’s imposition a welcome addition to the scene.
In contrast a scene from what appears to be a yard sale or other type of street market is turned into a mystery as Baldessari’s circle appears to hide a bright light source. There is a powerful glow behind his disc that adds a spiritual ambiance to an otherwise quotidian event.
Baldessari lives and works in National City, Calif., and one wonders whether he chose that town for its seemingly movie designed name or its ordinary American ambiance?
This well-presented and crafted exhibition showcases two of contemporary America’s most talented narrative visual artists who have filled the gallery with stories galore.
At a time when the American Dream is fading into memory and truthiness has replaced fact, these artists are celebrating the ordinary American culture that may well be receding in the rear-view mirror.
Bring your imagination and keen eye to this exhibition. You will be rewarded for your effort.