Perhaps the most spectacular and least-known private gallery in Seattle is the Wright Exhibition Space, housed in a former warehouse just north of downtown and open only two days a week. Originally opened in 1998 to showcase the collection of local art patrons and philanthropists Virginia and Bagley Wright, the gallery has in recent years begun to host a series of exhibitions drawn from outside sources. The museum-quality shows, focused so far on contemporary American art, are underwritten by the Wright Family Fund. The current exhibit is a large group of elongated paintings by the legendary Los Angeles painter Ed Ruscha, an artist best known for his Pop-inspired paintings of billboards and gas stations. The show, which will travel internationally, was curated by local art dealer and Ruscha authority Richard Hines. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
One enters the Wright Space through two giant, unmarked steel doors, like those into an old-world palace. Immediately one trades the clutter and roar of Aurora Avenue for the peaceful, luminous realm of high culture. The elegant galleries, three light-filled, pristine rooms, are a setting that would make nearly any art look great. That is certainly the case with this excellent show of the highly polished and understated work of art star, Ed Ruscha.
Nearly all the paintings in the exhibit are landscapes, with panoramic views of a vast curved horizon below, and a streaky sunset sky above. In some of the images, carefully chosen phrases are superimposed against the sky; in others, a billboard or iconic form hovers against deep space. Ruscha’s long-ago training in commercial art is everywhere apparent, from the precise hand-lettering to the slick quality of the paint. Also clear is his admiration for popular culture, his borrowings from the cinema, and his use of a pictorial language that is stripped down, cool, and cryptic.
The best of the paintings deliver both deadpan humor and a conceptual twist. In one all-blue, seven foot long canvas, a tiny spot on one end of the long span of curved earth is labeled, “Home.” On the far side of the image, six feet away, tiny labels point out the imaginary locations of “wolves, explosions, disease, and poison.” Though this picture was painted in 1980, the anxious sentiments seem that much more pertinent today, when keeping the wolves of terrorism and illness at bay seems a more precarious proposition than ever.
In another big-picture painting called "The Nineties," the ten carefully printed years of the decade march upwards through a lurid, orange sky. The sky darkens more and more ominously as the years approach 1999, a very prescient anticipation back in 1980 of the Y2K jitters that accompanied the turn of the century.
Nearby is a black and white painting with somewhat similar sentiments, and more than a passing nod to the cinema. In this dark, grainy image, a black cloud parts just enough to read the phrase “The End” hovering against a moody grey sky. Is it the end of the world, the end of painting, or just the end of the movie?
Movies are also a clear subtext in the four paintings of the giant Hollywood sign that sits above Los Angeles. These very spare paintings, monochromatic and consisting of just the famous sign, its hilltop site, and a dark sky, are a quintessential example of visible language that defines and dominates the surrounding landscape. Here the picture’s embedded caption is a Pop icon, an image industry, and a real object all at once, not to mention an obvious inspiration for Ruscha’s own combining of language and the natural world.
Advertising art is another clear point of departure for Ruscha, as is fitting for someone with his Pop credentials. One very funny — and particularly luminous — painting called "Corn Crown in 3 Places" includes a billboard-scale ear of corn hovering above the earth, with three helpful arrows pointing from the corn to three anonymous locations on the planet below. Here is all the slick appeal of mass media, but the message, whatever it is, is both cryptic and ironic.
It is difficult to draw any final conclusions about these large and deceptively simple paintings. In spite of the artist’s obvious intellectual and graphic gifts, not to mention his now-secure place in the pantheon, there is something overblown about some of the work, an epic scale that is at odds with the thinness of the ideas. Like a literary concept that works as a short story but not as a novel, a number of these droll and attractive paintings seem more suited for the scale of a drawing room than that of the wide screen.
FAIGIN ART REVIEWS:
A collection of reviews, featuring mostly NW artists, galleries and museums, on KUOW Radio from 2000 to 2012, in the Seattle Times from 2014 to present, and in other publications, as noted, beginning in 1993.
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