An image of two Americas shines through in Ed Ruscha's pop art exhibition Music from the Balconies
Short but perfectly-formed two-room exhibition of Pop Artist Ed Ruscha
'The music from the balconies nearby was overlaid by the noise of sporadic acts of violence,' runs the text on the large-scale painting from which this exhibition takes its name – it's printed in bold, capitalised white letters over a pastoral scene of tall grass and a twilit hill in the distance, dwarfed beneath an expanse of pink clouds and blue sky. The associations evoked by image and words are in sharp conflict, a peaceful, barren prairie versus an imagined scene of disruption, danger and intrusion upon the senses; the country and the city in sharp, overlapping contrast.
As the key work in a short but perfectly-formed two-room exhibition examining polymath Pop Artist Ed Ruscha's association with the West Coast of America and the city of Los Angeles in particular, the piece takes on even more vivid significance. It's possible to see within it two Americas; the untouched and idyllic pre-settlement New World, and laid over it like a bandage, a suggested gauze of tarmac, technology and human activity.
Yet humans are absent from every work here, including Ruscha's repeated photographic series' of architectural features which speak vocally of Los Angeles, even to those who have never been; the dream LA of Michael Mann, Mulholland Drive and Lana Del Rey, an odd kind of otherworldly glamour entrenched in functionally mundane modernism with art deco touches here and there. These series illustrate the iconic low-rise bars and diners of Sunset Strip in 1966, a nonet of clear blue backyard swimming pools, not a ripple on their surface, and thirty architecturally unique parking lots, each shot from above and hypnotic in their range.
There are rooftop photographs of the West Hollywood skyline, taken in 1961 and only collected as an oddly nostalgic set in 2004, and a range of acrylic paintings: 'ME' and 'DAILY PLANET' get out of the city and breathe fresh air, superimposing their title text upon snow-capped mountains, and Ruscha's Pop Art style is seen from both ends of his career, from the bold simplicity of 'HONK' (1962) to the foreboding obscurity of the iconic Hollywood sign in 'DEC 30th' (2005). In 'The Final End' (1992), the gothic closing 'The End' text of a classic movie overgrown with tall grass once more, there's a subtle but powerful callback to the exhibition's title image; a filmic narrative can be traced throughout, with one piece as first reel and one piece as final, it's theme revealing that everything – life, a city like Los Angeles, the glory days of Hollywood, the career of an iconic artist – grows, blooms and returns to the soil.
Music from the Balconies: Ed Ruscha and Los Angeles is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh, until Sun 29 Apr.