This work will be included in a future volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, edited by Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey.
'The history of the transcendental landscape from Caspar David Friedrich to Albert Bierstadt to Ansel Adams, seems to be packed into Ruscha's recent paintings, and the weight of this history, of ideas from the primeval sublime to the search for Eden in the wildness, buckles the canvas. On close examination, Ruscha's super-real, photographic mountains break up into a complex series of little flat planes of colour, similar to a paint-by-number kit or the methods used by billboard painters. The natural appearance of the mountains is only an illusion; rather, Ruscha gives us the 'idea' of the mountain' (K. Brougher, 'Words as Landscape', in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington D.C. 2000, p. 174).
Painted in 2004, REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER is one of Ed Ruscha's acclaimed 'mountain pictures. In these works, words are superimposed on an impressive alpine vista. In REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER, those words jar with the sublime landscape that stretches away. The words, which are also the title, are in capital letters and read like instructions, acting as a defiant challenge to the critics, telling them to review it and showing Ruscha's own lack of interest in their conclusions. That command initially recalls some of John Baldessari's conceptual works, except that here they trail off into a distinctly throwaway, Californian 'whatever, creating a jarring sense of the underwhelming power of such a scene of the majesty and might of Nature seen through the filter of contemporary eyes. Ruschas works are often described as 'cool; this picture contrasts two very different notions of coolness: West Coast laissez-faire and the more literal coolness of the glacial scene before us.
Ruscha's paintings often feature words, which he treats as a form of readymade, taking them and placing them out of context, or indeed without any context, on the canvas. Floating there, taken out of their usual element, they gain a mysterious eloquence through their very dumbness. In REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER, there is a self-reflexive quality to the words, which form an incitement to view and analyse the picture, although the artist appears ambivalent about any conclusions his viewer might reach. The fact that they are linked to an image gives them a new power: the juxtaposition implies that the words and the mountain are somehow related, yet there is a discord in tone. The epic nature of this view is deliberately punctured by this statement.
In a sense, these words are a trace of modern humanity, a reminder of everyday contemporary life against the awesome backdrop of this mountain wilderness. Ruscha's words recall the reassuring human presence presented by road signs on the long desert roads that the artist himself has driven so often. Those words that loom up and speed by as you make your way through the hinterlands of the United States are the sole clues that life goes on. The Burma-Shave ditties, the entertaining rhymes presented line by line, sign by sign, clustered along the side of Route 66 and other highways, are evoked here, giving that sense of company, of camaraderie, banishing any bewildering notion of isolation.
More than any of his other works, Ruscha's mountain pictures such as REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER exploit the uneasy relationship between modern man and Nature. Here, man is superimposed on nature, in the sense that the words have been presented on top of the mountain, recalling the iconic Hollywood sign. The clash between the visual language of advertising embodied in the words and the landscape invokes the commercial exploitation of mans habitat, as we mine mountains, pollute oceans and deforest whole swathes of continents. Even though the visual language of the scene invokes the sublime, placing us as viewers - or indeed the letters, as fragments of humanity - in the role of Caspar David Friedrich's wanderer, that whole notion of Romantic awe, of the love of the rugged stretches of the remote outdoors, of being able to see the holy in the forms of untamed nature, is deliberately deflated here by the prosaic incantation of the title.
It was Ruscha's co-opting of the language of signs, billboards and the flotsam and jetsam of culture in general that had initially prompted him to use words in his paintings. In our hyper-consumerist society, those markers in the landscape of existence are all the more endemic. In our information age, we are surrounded by words and logos. Indeed, it appears no coincidence that the backdrop in REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER recalls the logo of Paramount Pictures as much as it does Romantic landscapes. Ruscha was greatly influenced by Dada, and in particular by Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, as well as their heirs, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In his more recent paintings, by combining words with landscapes, he has pushed what was essentially the use of words as found objects into a new realm, creating works that invoke and expand upon the tradition of collage. That Dada characteristic is heightened here by the playful dissonance between the words and the scene. As Ruscha himself has said, 'I like the oddity of nature in the background (Ruscha, quoted in E. Mahoney, 'Top of the Pops, The Guardian, 14 August 2001, reproduced at www.guardian.co.uk).
In REVIEW IT LOOK IT OVER AND WHAT EVER, the combination of words and landscape has the added benefit that it creates an intriguing interplay between the elements, not least in terms of space: here, the two-dimensional letters have a background that is deliberately expansive, that plunges perspectivally into the distance, that again contrasts with the letters laid over the top. In this way, Ruscha is playing with all those Clement Greenberg-ian notions of the picture plane which he had already attacked in his word paintings of the 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism had still been the great artistic force to be reckoned with. Here, Ruscha is playing an elaborate game with the flatness of the canvas, of the words themselves, twisting the driving force behind his own early works, inverting the effect and exploring the territory from a new, fresh angle.