Addressing Pick, Pan, Shovel #7 (1979), Ed Ruscha offers the following words: "As with all my work, I ask myself, 'What was I thinking?' To me, it's all comic, tragic, and introspective rolled into one work. A favorite image has always been a pick, pan, and shovel or any two objects that are crossed to form an 'X.' My footprints appear in the background."
Ruscha's pick and shovel, crossed in front of a rounded pan with several specks inside, conjures images of a distant American past and perhaps in particular the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century. Juxtaposed with two further crosses--a knife and a fork and a pair of matches--the present drawing further indexes basic necessities such as bringing food to the table. The combination of these iconic, easily understood symbols that have become a hallmark of Ruscha's singular aesthetic have been stamped by the artist's boot marks, thus creating a link to physical activity and labor, while also presenting a tongue-in-cheek comment on artistic expression and the idea of the personalized touch--Jackson Pollock walking around his canvases is an example that comes to mind. Pick, Pan, Shovel #7 is, as such, a rare example of the artist making his own "presence" apparent, as his practice at large--spanning paintings, works on paper, artist's books, and photographs--is well known for its detached, cool appearance.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, Ruscha's move to Los Angeles in 1956 at the age of eighteen became the starting point for his career as one of the leading artists of his generation. He initially pursued training in graphic design where he acquired skills he was able to apply directly in his later works. His celebrated deadpan photographs of gas stations, parking lots, and "every building on Sunset Strip" were systematically compiled in books the artist designed himself (Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, 1963; Thirty-four Parking Lots, 1967; Every Building on Sunset Strip, 1966). These combined a simple graphic layout with a minimalist, tautological presentation of their subjects. Adopting a similar vantage point for each photograph, Ruscha's compositions were as neutral and objective as possible-for his Twentysix Gasoline Stations, he systematically photographed all the gas stations he encountered on a drive from Los Angeles to his family home in Nebraska, framing the structures within disinterested compositions that placed as much emphasis on the road in front of them than on the actual lots.
Ruscha's paintings and works on paper similarly combine a minimalist approach to art making with a graphic aesthetic. Consisting of single words or short sentences arranged across luminous backgrounds, sometimes depicting sunsets, mountain ranges, and cityscapes, they appear like bold, ambiguous slogans or poetry in single words. Letters spelling out "noise," "honk," "juice," "the end," "news," "oof," and "hope" are like linguistic readymades (Ruscha singles out Marcel Duchamp as an early influence) selected for their visual appearance rather than their content. Some words possess an onomatopoeic quality, others are humorous, and yet others fragments from fictive texts. They all prompt another way of looking that is at once matter-of-fact and mysterious, enigmatic and empty.
The three different crosses in Pick, Pan, Shovel #7 likewise present a mixed message, their repetitive yet escalating appearance guided as much by formal considerations than by an inherent logic. Observing this dialectical tendency, acclaimed author James Ellroy offers these insightful words: "Ruscha's palette is garish and desaturated, clean-lined and baroque. His art is nakedly polemical and fully abstract...chaos impends, but never runs nihilistic. These contradictions form the artist's stern moral core and present the viewer with a rich array of interpretive choices. Sinister occurrences seem to bubble just outside the frame - or do they?"