In Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish, Ruscha delicately and exquisitely renders a freshwater fish that is caught in the ultimate struggle between life and death. As if illuminated by some unknown light source, the fish takes on an almost mystical quality, arresting in its beauty and agility. In fact, the fish plays a prominent role throughout the series and appears in nearly half of the paintings. As in Magritte's "Treachery of Images" series, Ruscha elevates the otherwise anonymous fish to a realm of iconic importance. Devoid of the connotative environment that usually defines it, Ruscha's fish takes on a heroic stature, capable of embodying the ultimate struggle between life and death.
Though it incorporates visual imagery rather than word-play, Ruscha's Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish embodies the same clever word-association that his text paintings employ. Most of the titles from this series read like riddles, whose meaning can only be interpreted by analyzing the painting's visual content. Ruscha's clever wordplay is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp, whose delicate puns first captured the artist's attention while he was in school: "I looked at a lot of pictures in books on Dada in the library. It wasn't because I was interested in developing scholarly appreciation - I was more attracted to the titillation I got from the works I saw in the books. I was inspired by this sort of lunatic group of people who made art that ran against prevailing ideas" (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 131).
In Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish, Ruscha's trophy fish is depicted at the top edge of a vast monocolor background, much the same way a word--like SPAM--is often placed at the top of a similar expanse of color. Ruscha often reserves the upper range of the canvas for text, while leaving a wide amount of canvas for background. In the present painting, the subject itself appears as if placed upon an empty stage and lit by a bright spotlight, rendered with a slick, authoritative hand. Such presentation further complicates the painting's meaning; devoid of any context, the viewer acts as voyeur, forced to elaborate the context of the narrative that is implied.
The Surrealists were thrilled by the idea of "the uncanny" --a feeling of having seen or experienced something before. By removing an object from its signifiers, the effect of seeing an unknown object can be quite eerie. With its mysterious, almost Gothic background, Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish certainly embodies the Surrealists penchant for creating unknowable narratives. As in Magritte's "Treachery of Images" or Dali's dissociated clocks, Ruscha's fish embodies the surrealist's penchant for frisson. This mysterious quality pervades the entire series and also calls to mind the work of film noir or the work of another California artist, David Lynch. By using a minimum of means, Ruscha's style generates a nearly Zen-like atmosphere of an unknowable void. Ruscha must have incorporated this technqiue while viewing the vast skies, empty horizon lines and roadside billboards that punctuate the American West.
Ruscha further complicates the paintings' interpretation in his trompe l'oeil presentation of that ubiquitous tool of the artist's enterprise, the humble graphite pencil. In fact, the pencil is a potent and highly-charged symbol that recurs frequently in Ruscha's early work, such as Talk about Space and Noise, Broken Pencil, Pencil, Cheap Western, both from 1963. Save for the brush, the pencil is the artist's most emblematic tool. In fact, Ruscha remarks:
"It is an artist's job to [embellish a trivial subject] despite the fact that you have to use tricks and devices in order to put that idea across. I like to give attention to the lonely paintbrush or make a tribute to something that is humble, or something that does not require explanation. There are things that I am constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status. That's why taking things out of context is a useful tool for an artist. (Ed Ruscha, quoted in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings: Volume One 1958-1970, New York, 2003, p. 151).
Ruscha continually depicts the pencil--broken, splintered, melted, transformed--so that it ceases to be functional and is transformed into an autobiographical symbol of the artist himself. Near the lower edge of the present painting, Ruscha transforms the pencil into a worm, used as a cruel lure meant to lead the animal to its death. In fact, the pencil-worm reappears again in another painting from the series; in Bird Drinks Creek Dry, Fish Escapes, a delicate songbird has caught the worm in its beak. For the bird, the pencil-worm can be seen as a substantial nutrient, key to the creature's survival (calling to mind the familiar colloquialism "the early bird gets the worm"), yet in Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish, a more sinister meaning is implied. More importantly, the pencil at the top of the canvas which the fish has caught in its mid-air jump is depicted whole and intact; this depiction might indicate the dual nature of the artist's tool as well as the nature of art itself. What does it mean that Ruscha's fish had been "caught" by the artist's tool? Is his art the "bait" which lures the fish, or has our fish caught the pencil and left its rubbery substitute behind?
Frozen in time, Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish is infused with the flat, glossy appeal of a magazine photograph. An obvious source might have been Field and Stream magazine, which celebrated its 70th Anniversary in 1965, the year this painting was created. Ruscha most probably read Field and Stream as a boy growing up in Oklahoma, as did countless others from his generation. A certain romanticism and adventure pervaded its pages along with highly realistically rendered fish and fowl of every imagination. In the present painting, Ruscha depicts a striped bass, though some parts of the fish's distinguishing features have been embellished. In this way, Strange Catch for a Freshwater Fish recalls an era of adventurous boyhood. The already heroic presentation of the humble fish is elevated in the viewers' imagination as stand-in for the epic struggle between man and fish. The fish might be seen as the ultimate symbol of the masculine struggle against the elements -- an elemental struggle between man and beast, as immortalized in Hemingway's novel Old Man and the Sea.
As a symbol, the fish's importance dates back countless centuries, from its use as a Christian signifier to its recurrence in Flemish still life painting and as a favorite subject of the French Realists, such as Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet. The Surrealists later took up the task of rendering the fish. In René Magritte's Fish With a Woman's Legs, the artist juxtaposes the overt sexuality of a woman's nude torso and legs with the scaly, cold reality of a dead fish. Ruscha's image is also essentially a "reverse mermaid" and calls to mind romantic images of maritime adventure with an underlying sense of macabre.