This show is cynical in the good sense. There is a good sense. Or anyway there was, and now is an excellent time to revive it. The Greek Cynic philosophers -- including Diogenes, who sought an honest man -- were vocational outsiders who called things by their names. They were radically ethical. They opposed truth to pleasure and espoused truth absolutely. They exasperated regular people on purpose. A few New Testament scholars guess that the historical Jesus was a Hebrew Cynic who got, besides killed, drastically misunderstood.
Our present sense of cynicism rests on the wisdom that extreme candor is toxic when self-serving. The old Cynics suffered from and for unwelcome truth. Their bastard heirs seek excuses for smug attitudes and rotten behavior. The small-c cynic knows, in Oscar Wilde's words, "the price of everything and the value of nothing." The big-C Cynic pointed to how price -- that is, every sort of advantage-seeking motive -- pollutes value. The veteran Los Angeles Conceptual artist and teacher John Baldessari has always had a subtle, refreshing touch of the Cynic.
This show samples a series of paintings, first exhibited at last year's Venice Biennale, that resume a motif of Baldessari's earliest mature work, from over 30 years ago: banal photography blown up on canvas with gnomic captions lettered by a professional sign painter. Here the photographs are black-and-whites of isolated common objects, imprinted by computerized ink jet. The mechanical images, set off by broad white borders, have a stippled, vertically striated texture like furry black rain. The captions are from or imitate those of Francisco de Goya etchings: terse phrases of flat, despairing sarcasm.
Here are some "Goya Series" captions and their respective photographic subjects: "This Is Bad," an empty bowl; "And There Is No Remedy," a beat-up scrub brush; "These Too," a pair of high-heeled shoes; "Right," a snarl of string; "Less Than Perfect," an overripe peach; "There Isn't Time," a floral arrangement; "And," a paper clip; "So Much and More," a pencil; and "It Couldn't Be Helped," a goofily smiling mouth floated Cheshire fashion. Also shown are perfunctory collage studies for the paintings, with photos and lettering affixed to graph paper.
The semiotic game of this work is so simple that you get it at a glance: words and pictures brought to laconic, ever so slightly heightened, elegant equipoise. The change rung on Goya (himself a neo-Cynic, by the way, if ever there was one) mildly startles. Words that, in the Spaniard's etchings, coldly understate the content of horrific visions become the hotter elements in Baldessari's equations. Baldessari counters the natural priority that images have over text in our experience. Instead of looking first and reading second, we do both pretty much at once. A buzzing standoff may occur between the visual and the verbal centers of one's brain.
The effect is strong and clear, bracing the eye and mind. It feels moral, somehow, like a recall to first principles. The dominant tone is Goya's, hauntingly. Long ago and far away, there existed a valiant spirit that knew the thing it looked at and knew, as well, that words could not begin to express the thing. Goya used language to expose the inadequacy of language. Baldessari borrows Goya's language -- each item of it as obdurate as a rock thrown through a closed window -- to do the same for imagery. The result is artful anti-art.
The result is also an eminently marketable product line. Baldessari's return to his early manner reflects a recent fashion, notably in Southern California, for retro Conceptual styles considered less as brainy critique than as decorative accessory. Paintings in "The Goya Series," offered at Sonnabend for $50,000 apiece, will go well in rooms with glass-topped coffee tables, and I can see the collages pepping up those always awkward hall spaces outside bathrooms. The work's crisp look seems collector catnip. Is such opportunism small-c cynical? No. It is honest.
Truthfulness starts with accepting facts. Baldessari is an artist who, like any other, makes stuff and sells it. A lingering mental disorder in our culture is people's compulsion to pretend that special virtues, spiritual or political, motivate artists. Two things motivate artists: talent and exigency, what they can do and what they must. The art world makes artists. Artists do not make the art world. Artists are abjectly elitist. They are idealists condemned to life sentences in luxury trades (whether or not they earn a dime). So what?
Baldessari's art took form in San Diego in the 1960s when his studio was the back room of a laundromat, he taught high school, and the glamorous authority of art magazines from New York obsessed and tormented him. His first and, until now, only Goya title captioned a photographed copy of Artforum in 1966-67: "This Is Not To Be Looked At." Another early photo painting used a crude snapshot of the artist on a drab residential street. He stands stiffly in front of a palm tree that, viewed whimsically, can be seen to sprout from his head. In the manner of how-to tracts for amateur photographers, the image is labeled "Wrong."
Baldessari is a poet of the wrongness that esthetic devotion visits upon flawed, shaggy, mere individuality. He repeatedly evokes the experience, which I believe is quite common, of feeling devalued by what one loves: just not good enough, unworthy, even fraudulent. This is an embittering experience for many. Baldessari absorbs it with consummate humor. The ordinariness of the objects represented in "the Goya Series" may stand for the mediocrity that appalls aspiring artists in their own thoughts and feelings.
It's easy to sense why Baldessari is a great teacher, one who encourages kids to start with what they are rather that what they think they ought to be -- all the while maintaining allegiance to the terrible majesty of that ought. On the one hand, there is great art, which fills the ambitious soul with longing. On the other hand, there is one's tatty, funky self. Like a hobo Cynic in the agora, dissecting people's comfortable self-deceptions, Baldessari won't let either horn of the permanent dilemma recede from sight for a second. Paying attention to his work won't make you better or happier, but it will remind you what truth tastes like.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.