‘She’s wax, she’s not real.’ A couple of girls in the street peer curiously through the gallery window at the model who reclines on a large white sofa. Then she moves and the illusion is dispelled. This is a tableau vivant by veteran conceptual artist John Baldessari whose retrospective is now on at Tate Modern.
The project was conceived with renowned set designer Naomi Shohan (credits include American Beauty 1999, I am Legend 2007, and the forthcoming Sorcerer’s Apprentice 2010). Shohan was a student of Baldessari’s at UCLA, who moved from art to set production. Shohan suggested working with her former tutor on the curretn installation for Sprueth Magers. Baldessari made another manifestation of the ear sofa and nose sconces at the Museum Haus Lange earlier this year in March of 2009 This particular presentation made a wry counterpoint to the severe aspect of the Mies van der Rohe building. The Sprueth Magers installation further humanizes elements from the installation with subtle touches aided by Shohan's sensibilities and experience.
The room set contains a large white sofa shaped as a great ear, in whose hollow the model relaxes. This is flanked by a pair of upturned nose sconces filled with lilies. The wall is covered in a light silvery flocked design of the flowers. There is a careful scatter of issues of Vogue, and a too cute decorative poodle who clicks patiently around the sofa. The arrangement recalls 1930s Hollywood, and the resonant glamour of the art deco era, echoed in the hooped arch that sweeps above the sofa. The purity of the environ, including the gleaming white floor, plays with the artificial precision of a fashion set. The model who poses so elegantly; reading, turning slightly, for nine hours a day, holds the mysterious charm of a beautiful icon, living but just out of reach. The play with detached features of nose and ear, links with the morphed objects of surrealism, and in particular the subtle dramas of Rene Magritte. Baldessari is like a composer, seeking unexpected correspondences from controlled experiments in the confluence of image, words, settings and spaces. Tagged as a conceptual artist since the 1970s he is more liberal than this title suggests.
-- Nicholas James
All Images Courtesy Sprueth Magers
Images from Top to Bottom: ( © John Baldessari 2009, Stage setting in collaboration with Naomi Shohan, production design , Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London, Photography ©Stephen Brayne)