Three things make me homesick for Los Angeles: Trader Joe's, palm trees and John Baldessari. For artists who inhabit southern California, there is a mythic quality that surrounds the iconic LA artist as not just a pioneer of conceptual art but a pioneer of our art. Naturally, I was beyond thrilled to discover that his new work from 2011 was now on view at Spruth Magers here in Berlin. Not only because I was excited to see how the 80 year old artist has continued to create and evolve, but also to experience that nostalgic euphoria you feel when running into an old friend.
Upon entering the two-room downstairs space of Spruth Magers it is obvious that these 10 works are not a radical departure from the conceptual/pop aesthetic that marks Baldessari's practice. Instead, in Double Feature we find the content and context of Baldessari's usage of appropriated imagery and color blocks has been tweaked somewhat. This provides a further exploration of his well explored territory.
The formula for each piece in the series remains consistent: an initial background image, opaque hand painted color and a centered free-floating title in the bottom section of each canvas. While labeling the works as 'painting' would be a literal interpretation of their content, the term collage is much more appropriate. The image, pigments and text sit on top of one another in an obvious layering; the sum of their parts relaying more of a nonsensical message than coexisting to create a picture.
Baldessari has refreshingly strayed from his traditional use of advertising, media and film stills and has instead opted to source these tightly cropped background images directly from art history books. Henri Matisse, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, and Francis Picabia are four of the modern artists whose snippets of work appear on the wall. On the canvas the half-tone dots from the book printing become more pronounced in the enlarging process, leaving stylistically pixellated remnants that are partially obscured. The result is a mixing of texture with flatness and off-balance color compositions that is quintessentially Baldessari.
This shift into art historical imagery is not so much a shift into the conversation of art lineage as it is a juxtaposition of non-related content of high art production (the image) and low culture mass media (the text). The corresponding titles printed along the base of each work are derived from 1940's and 50's American film noir movies- the same era from which the source images are obtained. The titles themselves have ominous undertones such as "Dead Reckoning" and "The Set-Up" that take on a formal importance in their placement, while keeping an intentional ambiguity. By contrasting the non-relating image and text, two elements of equal value, subtle connections start to build around content and title. One is seemingly there to define the other but instead have been placed in a deliberate vacuum where no definition can be found. A perplexing puzzle is made where images loose their meaning, gain new meaning and then loose it again. I knew that I could count on John Baldessari to make me feel at home. With a comforting familiarity, each work hangs like a visual haiku, saying a lot by saying a little.
~Devon Caranicas, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: John Baldessari, Double Feature: The Set-Up, 2011, Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic and oil paint, 213,4 x 194,3 cm; Installation View; Double Feature: Dead Reckoning, 2011, Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic and oil paint, 243,8 x 194,3 cm; Courtesy of the artist & Sprüth Magers Berlin)