The cosmic and the comic make uneasy bedfellows, but Ed Ruscha continues to find himself in their double-bind grip. The legendary Los Angeles Pop artist shows a dozen large paintings in a format now familiar to his work. Each composition has a background of sometimes awkwardly blended paint standing for a sky or sunset. Superimposed on this firmament is lettered an idiosyncratic motto such as, say, "Those Golden Spasms."
The idea seems to be to find a phrase that is sufficiently poetic, kinetic or risible to evoke an image that compensates for the work's relative lack of visual blandishment. When this comes off, the effect is quite a mind-trip. In "Farms and Barns," for example, the rhymed coupling of words against a sunset sky evokes a combination of nature mysticism and love of the familiar that is almost religious. The effect is not only touching in its love of simplicity and its awe at the grandeur of the world, it is rather startlingly unlike Ruscha's old image as the witty commentator on life in Los Angeles.
He can still be funny. The placement of the phrases "Rising Binoculars, Falling Cameras" in one picture is charmingly wry, but the artist is most believable in such highly idealistic visions as "The Amazing Earth." A second superimposed phrase responds, "So It Is." It plays like the refrain of back-up singers in a pie-in-the-sky rock song.
An endearing sensibility hovers around this art. You wind up thinking Ruscha must be an exceptionally sweet guy. You even like him the better for not being able to bring off a ferocious work like "Wild Cats of the World." The problem remains that Ruscha is flailing about on extremely dicey turf. His bull's eyes seem to be jerked into the target and everything is so conceptual there's very little ground for consensus about what works and what doesn't. In the old days, imagery like "Sin" or "Standard Station" was iconic and universally memorable.
This group derives authority from an increase in size and an encouraging trajectory of success, but it still is as evanescent as a Chinese fortune cookie. (James Corcoran Gallery, 8223 Santa Monica Blvd., to Feb. 16.)