When one thinks of pop art and the use of text, the brand names on Warhol's Brillo boxes and Coca-Cola canvases or Lichtenstein's stippled comic book soap operas spring to mind. But no other artist of that generation embraced the possibility of text as provocatively as Los Angeleno Ed Ruscha, who helped define West Coast pop in the late '50s and early '60s. Although his resulting text-based paintings were undoubtedly conceptual in nature, they drew inspiration from a decidedly more earthbound source: namely, the landscape of urban Los Angeles and the American West. So if his paintings of the iconic 20th Century Fox logo or a silhouetted Standard gas station occupy minimal, abstracted color fields, their real-world counterparts—billboards, signage—exist in the quotidian space of urban sprawl.
Though Ruscha's career has branched into myriad directions in the ensuing decades, the four works currently on display in his exhibition at the Portland Art Museum explicitly revisit the terrain of the inner city associated with his early work.
Theshow's centerpiece—two enormous triptychs, each spanning an entire wall of the gallery—reveals how Ruscha remains preoccupied with both urban decline and the tension between abstraction and representation more than 30 years later. In "Azteca" from 2007, Ruscha recreates a roadside mural he photographed in Mexico. Depicting three awnings that all stretch from a single point on the horizon, like the rays of a dawning sun, the triptych unmistakably references the rise of the Aztec civilization. But Ruscha undermines such grandiose symbolism by carefully preserving the surface of the wall as well as the mural's contents. For example, a graffiti tag is scrawled across one awning. In the sister painting to "Azteca," "Azteca in Decline," an imagined version of the same mural appears in which the awnings have crumpled in disrepair. While Ruscha's conceptual conceit continues logically, the strictly representational qualities of the painting have begun to break down into sheer formalism. Without the orientation of "Azteca," this canvas devolves into pure abstraction, resembling a mountain range more than the awnings. But in that turn, Ruscha masterfully widens his net beyond urban decay, commenting on the inevitable entropy of all societies and the breakdown in the signifying chain. In other words, he addresses the sort of heavyweight concerns we'd expect from an artist of his caliber.