Ed Ruscha’s career has been defined by his precise attention to detail and focus on language, and “Drum Skins” — on view through July 12 at the Blanton Museum of Art — is no exception. The exhibition showcases 13 new works featuring text painted on drumheads, the phrases largely borrowed from the colloquial speech that colored Ruscha’s Oklahoma upbringing: “Not never,” “I can’t find my keys nowhere,” “I don’t hardly disbelieve it.”
The paintings are all recent, made between 2017 and 2019 with Ruscha’s signature Boy Scout Utility Modern font. And the Blanton exhibition, organized by curator Veronica Roberts, is the works’ debut.
But the drum skins the artist employs in lieu of canvas were collected decades ago in Ruscha’s now-hometown of Los Angeles. Nestled cozily together in the single room of the Blanton’s Contemporary Project gallery, spending time with the paintings feels more like eavesdropping on a porch party than visiting a gallery. The double-negatives have an alluring warmth to them; the unstuffy patois is something I’ve only ever heard from people who are comfortable in their own skin and not performing for anyone or putting on airs.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Ruscha notes that, “I never spoke this way [growing up], and if I did, my parents would be quick to correct me.” But Ruscha’s technique and longstanding approach to sidelined culture prevents these drumheads from merely appropriating Oklahoma slang for laughs.
Closely examined, there’s evidence of visible tracings, stenciling and outlines, around each letter, and the hard digital-alarm-clock edges of the font contrast beautifully with the rounded contours of the drumheads. And rather than simply pointing out “bad English,” these pieces catalog and memorialize it, in the same manner as Ruscha’s ongoing photography project documenting the streets of Los Angeles. As the cultural landscape of the United States shifts, local language is no more immune from change than storefronts or public signage.
As for his choice of material, it’s clear why Ruscha hung onto these drumheads for so long, waiting for an opportunity to paint on them. The unique individual patina of each piece of vellum is as alluring as the language itself. Their surfaces are buckled and warped, stained and marked, giving Ruscha’s sometimes clinically-clean graphic design a sense of duration, of having been well-loved. Several of the works have paintings of mountains alongside the text, and the cracks in the vellum echo the slopes’ jutting angles. While Ruscha’s text interventions alone might be seen just as well from across the room as from up-close, the drumheads themselves both invite and reward close examination.
There’s also one small detail that might be my favorite aspect of the Blanton’s curation here: in the corner of the gallery, below the wall text listing each work, there’s a single rectangular scrap of vellum. It’s not behind glass, it’s at a height accessible to anyone, and a friendly sign reads: “Curious about vellum? Touch here.”
“Ed Ruscha: Drum Skins” continues through July 12 at the Blanton Museum of Art, blantonmuseum.org. On May 7 at 6:30 p.m., Ed Ruscha will be joined in a conversation with curator Veronica Roberts at the Blanton. Tickets are $10-$15