Scratches on the Film

I’ve always had a fascination with the works of Ed Ruscha. Perhaps it’s because I’m a native Californian, one who spent a few years living in Tinseltown–Los Angeles–itself before moving to Raleigh.
Ed Ruscha, Scratches on the Film, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 36 1/16 x 72 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Art Trust Fund

To me there’s a true West Coast/Hollywood identity to Ruscha’s paintings, and that identity has always charmed me and seemed wholly recognizable. I see a Ruscha–especially a cinematically inspired one like our wonderful Scratches on the Film, and I think, Yes. This is familiar to me. I get this movie-inspired work.

But this West Coast familiarity was not always the case for Ruscha, who was an initial outsider to the California scene. Originally from the Midwest, Ed Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and never left–and now, he creates works that are inextricably linked to his adopted hometown. Though somewhat difficult to categorize, Ruscha’s work remains most closely identified with pop art, and his version of pop is distinctly West Coast–softer and more relaxed than the output of his New York contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Throughout his career, which skyrocketed in the 1960s, Ruscha has remained interested in using words, phrases, or single letters in his paintings, often culled from popular lingo. Presented in a stylized manner and sometimes placed against an amorphous background, these words change meanings and often rely on each individual viewer to create his or her own connections.

In Scratches on the Film, Ruscha evokes the ubiquitous presence of Hollywood and film, the most wide-reaching industry in Los Angeles. So pervasive is this industry that when you live in L.A., almost everyone you meet is connected to “the business” in some shape or form. Here, it seems even Ruscha is making his own connection to the movies. His canvas has been manipulated to resemble washed-out celluloid from the glamorous days of “old” Hollywood and the magic of black-and-white and silent films. This celluloid, though, is disintegrating into a fuzzy, sepia-toned nothingness, a bittersweet reminder of things past.

“I’ve been exposed all my life to movies,” Ruscha has said. “Now I’m painting scratches on the film, [and] I think it’s beautiful.” The familiarity of the specifically chosen phrase “The End” and the large-scale, old-fashioned typeface suggest the final moments of one of these films as it fades to black. There’s a romance to it that takes us back into the realm of nostalgia–and I’m no different. Just seeing this work whisks me away to my old Hollywood haunts, even though that time in my life has certainly reached “the end.” Thanks, Ed Ruscha, for the memories.

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