For the past four decades, Ed Ruscha has focused on words in his work, concentrating on the intersection between the literal and the pictorial. By painting and drawing words in a variety of media, he combines two types of signs- the arbitrary text and the descriptive visual- to expand our understanding of the nature and limits of communication. Ruscha's art points out the seemingly random and strange evolution of language as signs and symbols that are the cornerstones of civilization and essential to daily existence. Stating, "It is difficult to unravel art from language," Ruscha merges the two, creating works that are not easily decoded as either linguistic signifiers or as aesthetic images.
Hell/Heaven, 1989, is part of a series of works that resulted from the artist's Catholic upbringing. However they also refer to how these words, in their particular commonplace usage, describe extreme situations. The dualistic concepts are presented in opposition on a formal level; "HELL" is written right side up, with "HEAVEN" beneath, written upside down and backwards. This allows for the reading to be altered by turning the canvas 180 degrees, thus "HEAVEN" can be read correctly on top. This plays on the idea that the same scene or moment can be oppositely experienced or interpreted, depending on one's point of view.
The words are placed above a nocturnal aerial view of Los Angeles, his longtime home and frequent subject. Long been described as the City of Dreams, the fantasy of Los Angeles often becomes a nightmare for those seeking fortune and fame in its façade of reality and illusion. The lights of the city become an artificial constellation mirroring the actual night sky. The semi-regular grid of lights pierce through an expanse of darkness that furthers the dualist metaphor, creating a formal tension between light and dark that suggests the moral allusion of good and evil.
While Ruscha's interest in language affords him a Conceptual bent, his words, phrases and sentences are all harvested from the American vernacular. Akin to Warhol, his sources are the quaint and ordinary, such as road signs and the radio, clearly derived from Pop influences. His method of relocating "found words" into an aesthetic realm result in Duchampian overtones, which often elicits a Neo-Dada label. While his distorted, de-contextualized words in isolation juxtaposed against strange backdrops recalls hints of Surrealism.
Hell/Heaven, with its complex implications on multiple layers, exemplifies this collective stylistic and theoretical approach. As Kerry Brougher notes, "Ruscha's words hover between the flat and transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting" (K. Brougher, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2000, p.161). His works insist on their literal sources and play the role of signifiers, but simultaneously assert their aesthetic power, becoming a part of a new linguistic system.