March 12th, 2021

Each week, Artful spotlights an art experience or destination that speaks to us right now.

Ed Ruscha, who first arrived in Los Angeles at age 18, has long been seen as one of the essential artists of that city—making work that frequently references Hollywood and car culture. Now, a new exhibition is looking at a different but equally formative influence in his art: the place where he was born and raised. “Ed Ruscha: OKLA,” at the nonprofit gallery Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City, finds that many of the key elements in Ruscha’s art—such as his playfulness with language, or his interest in American manufacturing—can be traced back to this South Central state. As Ruscha said in a short video made for the press preview, “It’s an unbelievable, romantic place to me.”

Organized by the curator Alexandra Schwartz, who has written a biography of Ruscha and edited a volume of his writings and interviews, the show finds unexpected and personal angles on familiar works and presents some that may be less familiar. One section of the exhibition, titled “51% Angel, 49% Devil” after one of the artist’s text-based pieces, looks at Ruscha’s Catholic upbringing; another explores his many riffs on the letters “OK.”

Along with many of Ruscha’s paintings and works on paper, the show includes two rarely-seen experiential projects: the short film Miracle (1975), about an auto mechanic who has a religious experience at work, and the installation Chocolate Room, a space created for the 1970 Venice Biennale that surrounds visitors with aromatic shingles of chocolate-coated paper.

If you’re not in Oklahoma, have a look at the video tour, narrated by Oklahoma Contemporary’s artistic director Jeremiah Matthew Davis. The museum will also be livestreaming a talk with Ruscha on June 17 at 7pm CDT; check the website for details.

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