Ed Ruscha: I’m Amazed, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

“Words are pattern-like, and in their horizontality they answer my investigation into landscape. They’re almost not words – they are objects that become words,” says Ed Ruscha. He is an artist whose graphic vitality translates naturally into prints, as illustrated in this new show of decades of works on paper, some first published by Bernard Jacobson, others privately loaned. The diversity of expression achieved by the use of single words is arresting – from the hard, block-capital “EVIL”, written in Ruscha’s own blood, to the free-floating letters scrawled erratically with spilled liquid, as in “Lisp”.

Two versions of the lithograph “Hollywood”, one hot pink and ochre, the other with additions of caviar and Pepto-Bismol, open the show, marking Ruscha as the artist who in the 1960s travelled unfashionably west, to Los Angeles, rather than east, to New York, for his vision of American dystopia. On his Midwest journeys he encountered the petrol stations which became the subject of “Standard”, a series of paintings and prints exhibited here. “Being on the highway is an important thing. I’m drawn to the horizontal sweep. I think it has to do with driving – looking out on flat landscapes,” he says. Stunning one-metre-wide etchings here depict the empty landscape in twilit colours as layers of horizon lines, with one, two, three isolated tiny figures – “Man Walking Away From It All”; “Two People Temporarily Separated”; “Three Daughters”, evoking Lear on the heath.

Laconic, flat tone and historical allusion are both typical Ruscha. His references span art history, film, literature; apparent here is an interest in the surrealists, for whom words were psychological tools – rather than, as Ruscha treats them, abstract forms. Surrealist fantasies are evoked in his “Insect” portfolio: ants and cockroaches, reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, are meticulously delineated creatures with detailed bodies and wings. One oversized print, on a white background covered with images of thousands of flies, bears in grey the words “I’m Amazed”.

Until February 15, www.jacobsongallery.com

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