the ‘Huh?’ effect

Actual spam

‘Whatever my work was made up of in the beginning,’ Ed Ruscha said in 1989, ‘is exactly what it is like today.’[*] Well, not ‘exactly’, but his art is consistent, and this is still true 20 years later, as is made clear by the excellent survey of his paintings of the last 50 years curated by Ralph Rugoff, now at the Hayward until 10 January. Ruscha is ever intrigued by ‘paradox and absurdity’, and for all the immediacy of his images, which combine the emphatic qualities of both abstract art and commercial design, they also emit a low or high buzz of ‘visual noise’, a little or large glitch in communication that provokes ‘a kind of a “Huh?”’ in the viewer. Most often Ruscha produces this ‘Huh?’ effect through mischief with the relationship between words and pictures. On the one hand, he treats words as images in their own right; on the other, reading is never quite congruent with seeing in his work. ‘A flip-flop between those two things’ is how Ruscha describes the relationship, though a weird elasticity is even closer to the case: ‘I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.’ The upshot of these visual-verbal miscues is a sequence of puzzles that look obvious but are impossible to solve.

more from Hal Foster at the LRB here.