Ed Ruscha’s Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western (1963, at right) is a reality play in oils. On the far left of the painting, just above center, is a pencil. On the far right of the painting, on nearly the same horizontal axis, is a broken pencil. At the top of the painting Ruscha has painted the word “NOISE” in ‘three-dimensional’ projected script. The questions: Did you hear the pencil break? No. Is the word “noise” really in three dimensions? No. Can you hear noise? Yes. Can you hear “NOISE?” No.
At the bottom of the painting is a comic book titled “Popular Western.” It’s obviously not an actual comic, it’s just painted on to the blue ground of the canvas. It’s not real. It’s no more real than the noise of the pencil breaking you heard in your mind’s ear. Or of popular conceptions of the West, such as those in that comic book, or in Hollywood, which seems vaguely recalled by the Hollywood-style projected scrip of the word “NOISE” at the top of the painting. Or in the popular imagination, which has been influenced by Hollywood and comic books and the like. What is “real” anyway?
The painting, one of Ruscha’s absolute best, is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. On the occasion of the museum’s expansion and re-opening, curator John Ravenal has installed it in a corner with Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (below), which, like the Ruscha, was made in 1963.
Warhol’s painting features one image of Elvis dressed like a cowboy, repeated three times. The image is from a publicity shot for the 1960 film “Flaming Star,” which was, well, a ‘Popular Western.’ Warhol is also playing with reality: How much of the character – Elvis Presley, that is, not his film character – is constructed? And how much of it is constructed by the sheer repetition of the construct created for this character? What do we really know about Elvis Presley? When it comes to a celebrity in an emergent media age, what is “real” anyway?
It’s a super pairing, the kind of installation that not only brings challenging art into focus but that encourages the viewer to find something in the art that transcends the canvas or the museum. It’s a curator helping multiple works of art do what the artists want each work to do. (There are other little cross-gallery rhymes here too: To the left of the Ruscha is Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 Gullscape. It features a fictional landscape composed of Ben-Day dots, a blown-up version of how Ruscha’s ‘Popular Western’ would have been printed. If, of course, it was real. Which it isn’t. No more than Lichtenstein’s landscape is. Capice?)
This is one of the things I like about museums that don’t have little-bit-of-everything collections. Big museums, such as MoMA or the National Gallery, often hang some version of The Timeline: Here’s abex, here’s the Johns/Rauschenberg/Twombly transition, here’s minimalism, here’s pop and so on. The institutional emphasis is on inclusion and grouping rather than on putting together pairings of works that do something together.
The VMFA doesn’t ‘have’ to do that. Instead the museum gives us a timely corner: One of the challenges of today’s media age is separating what’s real from what’s false from what’s partially real from what’s intended to distract us and so on. When I was in the gym earlier this week, I looked up at the televisions above the cardio machines. All were showing versions of somethings purporting to be real: The infamous reality-TV show “American Idol” was on one TV. (How real is reality TV? Not very.) The live web-stream of the BP oil spill was on CNN. (This was more real than “American Idol,” but the view that BP is giving us — a lava-lamp-on-steroids close-up of the Gulf floor — seems designed to titillate and to distract us from the awful reality of the spill’s impact throughout an ecosystem. The view of spewing oil is real, but it’s a presentation of a narrow reality that diverts us from the totality of the disaster.)
Meanwhile, on a third TV I saw that Fox News had noticed that President Barack Obama would be spending Memorial Day at a national cemetery in Illinois. Fox pushed a chyron with the headline “Offensive to Soldiers?” (Apparently Fox was ‘outraged’ that the President wouldn’t be spending Memorial Day at Arlington. Fox’s outrage was as real as the idea that the President is spending Memorial Day at the ‘wrong’ national cemetery, and was thus demonstrating ‘offensive’ behavior. Its chyron and discussion were also misleading: Over the last 20 years, presidents have spent 13 Memorial Days at Arlington and seven elsewhere.)