The ‘language of now’ depicted in ‘Ship Talk’

Malibu artist Paul Rusconi stands with several pieces from his new work, a 31-piece, monochromatic photographic collection called “Ship Talk,” now on display at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica.

Malibu resident Paul Rusconi exhibits his new work, a 31-piece monochromatic photograph collection reflecting the ever-evolving modern-day lexicon, at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Paul Rusconi had spent the better part of two decades as a successful and prestigious art dealer, preferring to buy and sell works by other artisans, rather than create his own. During that time, one piece appeared that would come back to revisit him time and again-the stark image of tall ships toiling full sail through black, stormy waters.

It left such an indelible impression on the longtime Malibu resident that Rusconi, like the nautical figures in “Ship Talk,” Ed Ruscha’s stark acrylic painting, decided to chart a different course for himself two years ago.

It has paid off.

This past weekend, Rusconi, as artist, celebrated the opening of his second solo show in Los Angeles, at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica.

Part homage to Ruscha’s 1988 canvas, part observation to the new modalities of 21st century language, Rusconi’s own “Ship Talk,” a 31-piece monochromatic photograph collection, debuted Saturday, drawing local visitors, Hollywood names and members of the art community.

A single ship unifies the exhibit, its lone presence backing a consistent motif of euphemisms and lingo-speak predominant in today’s era of immediate gratification (fulfilled by billboards, cell phones and text messages) splayed across the front of every canvas: “Knee High in Nonsense;” “Call my Assistant. 323.610.6430;” “Mac or PC?” “W8 U? BRT ASAP CTN LMAO BTW TTYL XO :).”

Rusconi offers clues in the guise of another piece, “Captain of Industry.” Are the schooners guided by these abbreviated sound bytes, like some shining beacon of light? Have they been confused and disoriented, steered off on a journey to nowhere? Was the first mate texting at the wheel? Or maybe Rusconi proposes that individuality is threatened by the fast and fickle conventions of pop culture, like a ship thrust upon choppy waves.

At once defining and pervasive, Rusconi said he chose his titles for “Ship Talk” through his appreciation for the ever-evolving modern-day lexicon. Some phrases, like “Bromance,” are linguistic portmanteaus only recently having emerged into the American stream of consciousness.

“The language is just the language of now, which I like,” Rusconi said. “Even the ship Š It’s changing course. It’s in a pivotal point. We’re changing. Society is changing.”

Change, and the contrasts present in “Ship Talk,” symbolizes important parts of Rusconi’s own life and artistry.

Rusconi chooses to make his home at the bucolic ocean side of Malibu, and his workspace-a converted 10,000-square-foot loft in the industrial environs of downtown Los Angeles.

“I love living in Malibu,” he said. “The air’s clean, I can go to the beach. I can relax.”

But downtown, its urban scenery and its denizens are for observing the interactions and everyday conversations that Rusconi captures in his art, depicted in pieces like “Skaters, Surfers, Punk Rockers, Metal Heads,” “Sweaty Boys in Pickup Trucks” and “Mann’s Chinese is on the Right.”

“Everything about that environment informs my work,” he said, “from the people who live and work there, what people say Š what they sing in the car. General attitudes inform what goes on in our society.”

If Warhol was finely attuned to using iconoclasm as social criticism during the 1960s, so can be said of Rusconi for the current decade’s social mores. When the tabloids spy on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the newspaper clippings are magnified in older Rusconi pieces like “No Way Out,” exposing the hollowness of gossip fodder and the public’s pointless obsessions with it.

Currently, the artist said he’s in the process of constructing a 15- by 30-foot portrait of an as yet-unnamed subject. But “Ship Talk” is to date his most ambitious work for its content as much as its assemblage.

For the project, Rusconi took months to gather the sturdy mahogany frames for each piece, milled separately for him. He meticulously inspects, one by one, each digitally screen-printed canvas, which is covered by Plexiglas is augmented not with oil or acrylic Š but nail polish.

Among Saturday’s celebrity visitors to Gallery 169 was actor and comedian Martin Mull. Mull, also an artist, said Rusconi’s work represents a shift in the way popular culture is portrayed in modern art.

“It’s very interesting to me,” Mull said. “It lets me know that I’m living in a fool’s paradise, and no matter what I do, the 21st century is speeding ahead.”

Gallery visitor Judi Jensen noted that her favorite Rusconi piece of the evening was “Keys, Wallet, Cell Phone, Sunglasses.”

“If any of those are missing, we’re in trouble,” she said.

Rusconi said his work years and decades from now will always incorporate the modern methods of language and communication of the time, with one possible exception: “If we’re still speaking to each other then,” he said.

“Ship Talk: New Works by Paul Rusconi,” displays until Feb. 27 at Gallery 169, 169 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica. Ten percent of the exhibit’s proceeds will be donated to OXFAM’s Haiti Relief Fund. More information can be obtained by visiting or call 310.963.3891.