The Music from the Balconies depicts a grassland scene from a low vantage-point, with various types of flora in the foreground and rolling hills silhouetted in the background. The clouds in the light blue sky are illuminated in pinks, oranges and purples as if at sunset or sunrise. Painted on top of this landscape is the seemingly unrelated phrase ‘THE MUSIC FROM THE BALCONIES NEARBY WAS OVERLAID BY THE NOISE OF SPORADIC ACTS OF VIOLENCE’ in a clean, modern font that is evenly spaced. This work belongs to a large body of paintings, begun in the 1980s, in which the artist Edward Ruscha overlaid landscapes with texts (see Pay Nothing Until April 2003, Tate AR00047, and Daily Planet 2003, Tate AR00048).
Unlike more recent examples of this type of composition, such as Pay Nothing Until April and Daily Planet which use acrylics, The Music from the Balconies is executed in oils. As a result the artist’s process of making the work is more visible in this painting than similar works produced in later decades. The text was applied using stencils and is presented in Boy Scout Utility Modern, a unique typeface created by the artist as a sort of ‘no-style’ (Richards 2008, p.82).
The Music from the Balconies is testament to Ruscha’s friendship with the writer J.G. Ballard. Throughout their respective careers the pair shared a common aesthetic sensibility concerned with the deleterious effects of contemporary life. The text presented in this painting is lifted from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, which charts the moral and social breakdown of an ultra-modern, residential tower block. Ruscha has described this painting as an ‘illustration’ of some of the novel’s themes and ideas (artist’s talk, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 21 October 2011). While not directly representing the urban setting in High-Rise, Ruscha’s painting offers an intriguing visual analogue for some of the psychological tensions that underpin the novel. The jarring juxtaposition of pastoral imagery and rationally-designed typeface reflect the conflict between man and nature that unravels throughout Ballard’s novel. While the exaggerated palette of Ruscha’s landscape causes it to appear artificially simulated or chemically induced, which might also be seen as reflecting the interests of Ballard, who frequently explored the themes of drugs and advanced technology in his writings.
The landscape represented in The Music from the Balconies appears to be inspired by the prairie landscapes of Ruscha’s childhood home of Oklahoma, although it could equally reflect the coastal prairies of California, his adopted home for many years. Seen in this light the prairie setting connects with the landscape tradition in American art and the wide-open vistas found in many of Ruscha’s paintings and photographic works dating back to the early years of his career. Likewise the saturated colours also recall the Technicolor film stock perfected during Hollywood’s golden age, highlighting Ruscha’s long-term interest in film and the Hollywood film industry, whose studios are located close to Ruscha’s own artistic studio.
Edward Ruscha and J.G. Ballard, Edward Ruscha: Mountains and Portraits, London 2000.
J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, London 2006.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, Singapore 2008.
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