John Baldessari, Nov. 17, 2004-Jan. 8, 2005, at Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 W. 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
John Baldessari makes visual anagrams. Scrambling together photographic images with his abstractly painted interventions, he produces hybrids with their own intriguing logic. It's as though he's trying to make a new word out of leftover consonants, somehow in the end always managing to produce the vowel that ties it all together.
Baldessari's current exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery includes 16 new works, some of which are single compositions (which he calls "windows"), while the rest are compilations of images forming "columns" or "stacks" that look like oversized filmstrips. The stacks show Baldessari's special genius for transgressing the boundaries between the physical world and the realm of representation.
As Baldessari says in the accompanying interview, "like a square peg in a round hole, I keep on doing that, like a kid, trying to make it work. . . trying to make something that's neither painting nor photograph."
In Eight Lines: With Persons, Black and White (One Color) (2004), Baldessari pulls together eight black-and-white photographs, each separately framed, with a single red line. The line is actually the painted silhouette of a rope that happens to be present in each appropriated image. Though the photographs are stacked in a slightly askew column that is anything but sublime, the red line is reminiscent of one of Barnett Newman's famous zips.
Each photo depicts men with ropes -- mountaineers, boaters, a runner crossing the finish line -- who look like so many heroes and anti-heroes. Dramatic and comical, the images contradict the Minimalist format of the column and the single red line, a linear gesture that brings to the piece a poeticism that none of the images could have ever owned separately. There he goes "borrowing vowels" again.
The piece titled Two Person Fight (One Orange): With Spectator (2004) is a large (ca. 84 x 82 in.) black-and-white photograph with a void cut from its center, an abstract humanoid that has been painted orange and is apparently wrestling with a female figure nearly blotted out of existence by the overwhelming and aggressive shape. It is left ambiguous as to whether the form is human or monster.
Two Person Fight represents like a trophy the victorious achievement of Baldessari's attempt to "up the ante" of the colored shapes that share the picture plane with his found photographic images. The shapes are meant to provoke the images into a space that treads more closely to the abstract than the representational, and in effect renders what was once a photograph neither photo nor painting.
Visually, the works project a beautifully unsettling dissonance, a kind of visual counterpart to musical compositions by the composer Bella Bartok. The shapes are either directly painted on the enlarged photograph, or cut directly out of the photos with the recess painted in. Sometimes Baldessari has applied Jean Arp-like carved and painted wood-block shapes directly onto the photograph surface.
The shapes are predominantly the color of his current obsession -- orange. "I want to see if I get orange out of my system before New York," he said in Santa Monica as he was preparing for this exhibition. Apparently, he didn't. In fact, with this show, the color has become singularly his. Yves Klein has his blue, and so Baldessari has his orange.
Baldessari sets up discomfort and antagonism in his works through the abstract shapes that he pairs with the photographic images. Sometimes the shapes seem threatening, as is the perilous and otherworldly "shadow" that surrounds the female figure in Person on Bed (Blue) With Large Shadow (Orange) and Lamp (Green) , giving the picture an air of existential crisis. In other works the shapes prove to be stagnantly benign, as in Large Glass (Orange): And Person. If you squint, the piece could be a tweaked version of one of Morandi's complacent still lifes, arguably existential in its own right. Many of the works in the show are simply playful. There are two respectively titled: Animal (Black) at Ocean: Agitated 2004 and Animal (Black) at Ocean:Tranquil 2004, that look like silly little mistakes stolen from the walls of a child's nursery.
Baldessari has installed seven of his "columns" as a group against the longest wall in Goodman's north gallery space. Together they make an interesting whole, but several don't hold up. The piece Twenty Gazes: Woman, Black and White (One in Color)(2004) -- a stack of pictures of women's eyes -- is fun, but a bit too kitschy to be taken seriously. Once again it looks as though it could have been snatched from someone's wall, but this time from the bedroom of a teenybopper obsessed with old movie actresses.
In contrast, the three column pieces Six Ropes: With People (From Yellow to Green) (2004), Five Yellow Divisions: With Persons (Black and White) (2004)and Ten Suitcases: With People (Black and White) (2004)are brilliant. Six Ropes brings six motley images together, once again with rope, but this time it is a grotesque fungus-like lump that appears to be infecting each image and its inhabitants.
Five Yellow Divisions once again mimics Newman's zip. The yellow line slicing the center of the column of five framed photographs sets up a binary of captivating human facial expressions that are among the most emotionally dynamic in the show.
Suitcases is one of the longest columns. The suitcase, like the other objects that repeat and therefore tie the images in a given series together, is made familiar in the same way that a movie star is recognizable in a tabloid photo. In turn these images become almost tactile. They are the keys by which the viewer can enter the worlds inhabited by the characters in the images. If only I had a suitcase or a rope. . . two objects that by chance or by craft are also symbolic keys into the world of Marcel Duchamp. The "valise" is of course the more conclusive image, since Duchamp's 1941 The Box in a Valise contained the tiny replicas of all his major works, including the cords of the 3 Standard Stoppages.
All this symbology-play is a heady reference to Structuralism, a bog that we would be wise to avoid. Baldessari keeps it light. That is the essence of his oeuvre. He has always been playful. He has won his battles against art's axioms in the guise of the jester rather than as an armed knight. (Although he has the stature of a knight, clocking in at 6' 7").
By taking his images from the cinema, Baldessari is allowing his work to partake in a realm that "mirrors the real world," as he himself says, but is somehow a more conclusive and decadent version of our collective consciousness. His works invite the viewer to partake in the strange new worlds existent through his "windows" by blotting out the faces of the protagonists with a simple circle, as if to say, "your face here."