How can one unite both visual and literary narratives? American artist Ed Ruscha has been a mastermind at encapsulating his visual aesthetics by creating visual poetry through his signature addition of written words to the painted landscapes of Los Angeles and Southern California. His publication They Call Her Styrene (Phaidon, 2000) exemplifies Ruscha’s interest in popular culture, signs and advertisements that continued to nurture his work throughout his career. His works articulate images and words, endowing them with multiple meanings, inciting us to think about our complicated relationship with the written word.
By Sabrina Morales. Photographs courtesy of SMV – Studio Moretti Visani
Ed Ruscha’s works include elements from the language of advertising. He started using it after studying typography to be a poster painter, experienced in merging images and text into one visual expression. From that he moved to print and books. Publications have always inspired his creative expression, that is why Ruscha uses the same narrative approach in his works, using canvases as blank pages where words are painted.
This led to his artist book They Call Her Styrene (Phaidon, 2000). It started with the idea of creating an empty book, a book with no pictures, no letters, nothing at all.
He took the clean, blank pages and filtered his ideas to create a new story, usually adding one or a few words to landscape images to evoke mental landscapes.
They Call Her Styrene conflates into a single block of almost 600 pages, a literary and visual narrative exuding a nostalgic, cinematic atmosphere. With this publication, Ruscha brings back to life his early childhood memories dedicated to observing life through cinema, with a fluid, continuous narrative of visual pictures alongside titles and subtitles to make them easier to understand.
Even today, readers are not so used to seeing books as a space where artists can express their creativity, or as a complete work of art. Ed Ruscha has transformed these ideals by permeating the barriers of what art is and what it is not. His artist book is definitely an artwork. It is a form of expression, a conflation of artistic manifestations through a narrative format.
From Ruscha’s point of view, his artist book can be defined as just another medium, like a canvas for a painter or like stone or bronze for a sculptor. But its special features make it a tool with much broader possibilities: the option to combine painting, sculpture, experimental poetry, applied arts, the act of browsing pages… These multiple possibilities add a playful, participatory sense to the contemplation of his works, as the artist’s book can be seen, touched, smelled, leafed through and felt.
As for the editorial aspect, the book welcomes the reader with a vigorous hard cover that was potentially created using the Offset printing technique, as it pressed both the background and the letters into the cover with a color printing process. The background comes with an ombre effect, transitioning from salmon pink to yellow, alluding to Ruscha’s landscape painting technique. The title comes in a cream color, in an all-cap Serif Sans typeface that also recalls the artist’s approach to typography, on a subtle, pictorial background. Coated in dark grey, the spine of the book contrasts the cover, putting even greater emphasis on the artist’s name printed on it.
Inside, the uncoated paper is grayer, leaving a matt effect on the images. In the book, the pictures are a key element, reproduced in the highest quality to make even the smallest details of each painting clearly visible.
Over time, books as an artistic medium have become more complex in various ways, which has broadened their horizons. For example, we saw the emergence of specific categories within the genre, such as the book-object. With his sculptural presence, Ruscha’s artist book definitely falls within this definition.