It may seem a stretch to find a connection between the two shows that recently opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami. One is video, and of performance art at that — in its essence theatrical and dramatic. The other is intentionally simple and flat, of painting and photography. But while the emotional tenor feels very different, Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Song” and Ed Ruscha’s “On the Road” share common ground when they deal with a sense of place, sometimes illustrated — and often literally described — through an American vernacular.
When talking about later 20th century American art, and in particular the innovative work being fashioned in California during that time, Ruscha has become part of our lexicon. His sparse, text-based paintings and black-and-white, snap-shot-like photography of the American West have entered iconic territory.
Examples of both are in the museum, though not really part of the same exhibit. The photography on the entry wall comes from the Margulies Collection and will be familiar to many an art lover. These are the photographs taken in the 1960s of gas stations dotting southwestern highways, most famously Route 66, and of parking lots in Los Angeles — the first grouping would appear as a book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the second as Thirtyfour Parking Lots. These serve as an introduction to Ruscha’s aesthetic and passion: depicting life on the road and seen through the lens of the quintessential American obsession, cars.
Next to it is the first piece in “On the Road,” an exhibit of works from Ruscha made between 2008 and 2010. It too is a book, which is the basis for the show, his own version of Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking novel of the same name. With white gloves, you page through this large-scale edition, which is illustrated with the artist’s own photography and also with found photographs from the era, of car parts and sandwich stands and other roadside detritus.
In the next room are Ruscha’s latest paintings, which are, indeed, snippets of text from Kerouac’s musings and observations. The letters are painted free-form, and behind each there is a generic mountaintop. They are horizontally framed as though you are looking at them from a windshield. There are also 10 drawings.
Ruscha recalls the genesis of this particular show. He is precise and concise in choosing his words, with a laid-back Los Angeles spirit, just like his work. He says about six years ago he decided on making a commemorative publication, and settled on the Kerouac book, which he read in 1958. He says it paralleled his own life at the time. His was making his own road trips, “hitch-hiking — it was possible back then” and hitting the open roads from his native Oklahoma. It was the sprouting of the counter-culture era, when people “were on a mad dash, on the move.” The characters in Kerouac’s book were “ambassadors for optimism,” and Ruscha wanted to recapture that mood.
For the accompanying paintings, Ruscha picked out “isolated jewels of thought” from the Beat author to highlight. Jewels such as “In California You Chew Juice Out Of Grapes And Spit The Skin Away, A Real Luxury.” They are drawn freehand in a lettering he made up, “an imaginary typeface that I call Boy Scout Utility; it’s a lettering that truly has no curves,” he explains. The mountaintops he has added to the background “are stage settings, generic but an extra dramatic stage” like the magnificent landscape of the West itself.