Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire
[ACTOR “Welcome to Norm’s! Where life happens 24/7!”]
[AUDIO: surf sound]
Every resident of Los Angeles knows that slogan, and just about everyone knows the place—it was recently declared a historic landmark. In the 1960s, Ed Ruscha often walked the few blocks from the iconic Ferus Gallery to Norm’s to grab a bite.
[SOUND FX- sounds of a diner / silverware on plates / low thrum of talking and eating.]
Ruscha’s work is dedicated to Americana, and particularly the landscape of southern California —the open skies and the open road—the attitude and aesthetic born out of the promise of the west.
Here we see the restaurant burning while its trademark neon sign gloriously proclaims its name. In a perfect balance of nihilism and optimism, irony and sincerity, the points of the sign are defined and mimicked by the flames. The extreme perspective of the building along with the blaze, thrust diagonally across the canvas.
…There is a set of pencil marks or lines in the areas that at first glance appear to be unfinished or unpainted in this painting. And that's very much a deliberate strategy of his. This sort of slippage between a lushly-painted area of the canvas and then, this sort of moment that's just line drawing.
Norm’s diner is a roadside icon, one of a number of twenty-four-hour restaurants that populates Southern California, slinging pancakes to paying customers. For Ed Ruscha, Norm’s carried the same graphic status as the Hollywood sign, the titles at the beginning of movies, or the bright gasoline signs of Standard Oil Company, all of which became subjects for the artist’s work in the 1960s, all symbols of the American landscape, atmosphere, and even the particular idiom of English that Americans speak. Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire is the first painting by Ruscha of a building set ablaze. The fire brings a surreal edge to the classical, archetypal scene, burning with an almost comic enthusiasm, a moment of expressive energy and even melodrama in a clean, well-lit world.
One of the most important postwar artists, Ed Ruscha came into prominence during the 1960s pop art movement. First recognized for his associations to graphic design and commercial art, Ruscha became admired for his meditations on word and image. Working in a variety of media and taking the environment of Los Angeles as a guide, Ruscha creates candid, comic presentations of familiar ideas and locations that continue to impact contemporary art.
Boss, 1961, according to Ruscha, is his first mature painting and one of the few canvases he completed with a heavy impasto surface. The impasto gives the word “Boss” a visual weight, as in concrete poetry where a word literally becomes an object. Ruscha quickly abandoned the idea of a word taking on an object quality, however, in exchange for smoother surfaces and more simplistic linguistic constructions. The distinction between “boss” as a person who leads and “boss” as a late 1950s figure of speech adds to the painting’s depth and the play between the image and the object quality of the paint.
Ruscha’s drawing and photography have always inspired and laid the groundwork for his painting, but in recent years, these works have become heavily sought after as mature expressions of Ruscha’s oeuvre. In the late 1960s, Ruscha started employing gunpowder in drawing as a way to soften the texture of his images as well as to gain more control over atmospheric effect. Ruscha used cotton puffs to rub the fine powder into the paper, applying multiple layers in a laborious process. Turn Around, 1979, takes the gunpowder technique to the level of metaphor, wittily asking one to turn around as if they were at gunpoint. The expression recalls the Wild West persona often applied to Ruscha, stemming from his Route 66 cross-country journey from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in his early twenties.
In 2005, Ruscha represented the United States at the Venice Biennial. Blue Collar Tech-Chem, 1992, and The Old Tech-Chem Building, 2003, were featured in the show. The paintings depict the transformation of an industrial building from a Tech-Chem facility into Fat Boy. Inspired by Thomas Cole’s nineteenth-century The Course of Empire cycle, the works denote a journey from darkness (as is the background of Blue Collar Tech-Chem) into a place of looming destruction. Emblazoned with Fat Boy, The Old Tech-Chem Building represents a decadent morning with death on the horizon. Fat Boy is the name of the nuclear bomb dropped over Nagasaki; the crimson sunrise conjures the Los Angeles sky when a distant grass fire burns and the sun turns bloodshot red.
Azteca, 2007, and Azteca in Decline, 2007, are two long, narrow triptychs depicting three flags or ribbons of color in transformation and destruction. In the first triptych, Ruscha recreates a mural he saw in Mexico City. Both the mural and the wall are represented in trompe l’oeil entirety, with seams and cracks and drips. In the second triptych, Ruscha shows the mural melting into tectonic, dissolving forms. Rather than following the large plumes of color to their destruction, the wall is steadfast along with a small burst of graffiti.