Five big black and white canvases hang high up on a wall in the National Gallery. They show a tire shop, a tool shop, a trade school, a chemical plant and a telephone box. Under each, the exact same views in technicolour show what those places have become. The tool shop is a Korean supermarket, the trade school looks like a prison, the phone box has disappeared.
Made more than 20 years apart, they paint a portrait of a shapeshifting city (Los Angeles, Ruscha’s home), a city in the constant, ceaseless throes of change.
In his characteristically ironic, effortlessly cool, calm and precise style, Ruscha documents the blue collar spaces of the city transforming into something else entirely. Inspired by Thomas Cole’s depiction of societal collapse in ‘The Course of Empire’ (also on show at The National Gallery), Ruscha shows the rapid industrial acceleration and the feverish REM moments of the American dream.
Is he saying these transformations are a bad thing? Are his paintings a warning against modernism, like Cole’s? It’s hard to tell. But the move from monochrome to colour suggests life seeping back into these spaces, not ebbing away. Maybe he’s saying ‘hey, cities change’, not ‘cities shouldn’t be allowed to change’.
As ever, Ruscha’s art is smart and snappy, with a huge amount to say about cities and how they twist and mutate. That he does it with all of his trademark quietness and grace just makes you jealous that you’ll never be as cool as him.