RED ROOSTER combines a spray-painted stencil image of a rooster with a lithographic print. The lithograph has been printed right to the edge of the large landscape-oriented sheet of paper, and depicts in yellow and brown inks a row of four wooden floorboards viewed from a direct downward-looking perspective. The floorboards, with their precise detailing of knots and grain marks, are highlighted by what appears to be the shadow of a window pane cast onto the floor at an oblique angle, giving the impression of a light-filled room on a sunny day. Lithography is a traditional printmaking technique based on the immiscibility of grease and water, two components which establish the drawn and non-drawn areas of the print, usually transferred from a porous stone surface onto which the image has been drawn using a greasy crayon stick. A colour lithograph such as RED ROOSTER is achieved through the printing of at least four stones: one for each of the separate coloured inks of which this image is comprised. Each stone adds a further level of detail and definition to the trompe l’oeil wooden floorboards. However, this technically-accomplished verisimilitude is undermined by the second layer of the image.
Overlaid directly on top of the lithographic flooring is the stencilled image, in red acrylic paint, of a rooster in silhouette profile. The rooster is outlined faintly in pencil, a wavering hand-drawn line only visible at close range. These pencil markings were the guideline from which a paper stencil was cut, and then temporarily placed over the lithographic print while the red acrylic spray paint was applied. The loose and hazy coverage of the red paint contradicts the usually crisp stencilling process to appear more like weathered graffiti. In its flat and frontal presentation, the rooster subverts the careful effects of space and realism which the floorboards suggest.
RED ROOSTER has visual parallels with a number of other works by the artist. In contrast to the widely-held view of Ruscha as an artist concerned solely with representations of text, be it single words, sentences or catch-phrases, he has in fact produced many works that eschew text altogether to focus on the graphic potential of various representational codes. The artist has stated that: ‘The idea of pure conceptualism puzzled me because I felt like it was impossible to make a statement with a work of art that didn’t have something to do with the visual.’ (Ruscha and Schwartz, p.373.) The screenprint “L.C.” 1997 (Tate L02359), similarly depicts the texture and linear contours of wood grain. The image of the rooster has also made infrequent but notable appearances in earlier works, such as Rooster 1988 (reproduced Tallman, p.205), an aquatint etching in soft grisaille tones of a silhouetted rooster throwing its head back and crowing. As Susan Tallman writes of Ruscha’s cinematic series of silhouetted works from the 1980s and 1990s, ‘tee-pees, picket fences, lawn jockeys, roosters, and other filmic emblems of Americana are invested with both corny nostalgia and quixotic majesty’ (Tallman 1996, p.205).
The two processes used to make RED ROOSTER create an image that is simultaneously printed, drawn and painted. The two layers of visual information are presented as a contradictory and witty juxtaposition. The lithograph hints at three-dimensionality and ‘real’ space with the slanting shadows of the window panes, while the rooster references advertising signage, brand icons and cartoon imagery, floating untethered to the space depicted behind it. Ruscha’s layering of multiple processes confuses the distinction between handmade and reprographic techniques, an impulse which can be seen to inform much of his wider body of work. As the curator Cornelia Butler has noted, Ruscha’s approach disrupts the fine art understanding of drawing as expressive mark-making, by employing the ‘cool masquerade of graphic design’ to challenge the received notion of drawing as an articulation of the artist’s thought processes and technical skill’ (Butler and Rowell 2004, p.28).
Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, London 1996.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2002.
Cornelia Butler and Margit Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: the Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2004.