Given that artists and the art business have historically located themselves on the East coast, “West Coast” art has always enjoyed a strangely tangential vantage point to “mainstream” art. Embracing a refreshing sense of the absurd in contrast to New York’s high-seriousness and immersed, as it is, in a culture of unreality (Hollywood’s film business being considered the primary industry).”West Coast” art has often seemed like an antidote to the dominant East coast ideals of esthetic authenticity. But all the qualities that have made the work of such artists as John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, William Wegman and Terry Allen seem marginal over the years are now recognized as central concerns to contemporary art. If Ed Ruscha’s popularity now seems prophetic of this centralizing of a West coast marginal sensibility, John Baldessari’s work is more centrally implicated through its influence on so many New Image artists and through his teaching at Cal Arts where the movement was generated. If, in the early ’70s, Baldessari’s enjoyment of the absurd and his slightly jokey, self-parodying attitude to the rigorous intellectualism of conceptual art appeared marginal, it now maintains a central position, both historically and currently. “Talking about art is like trying to french-kiss over the telephone,” artist Terry Allen once said when asked to discuss his own work. And I must admit to feeling the same way when writing about Baldessari’s art. Because talking about it doesn’t really cut it in this case. Over the years, critics have somehow reduced his art to some kind of earnest illustration of semiological theory – a view that is perversely inaccurate. Though extremely sophisticated and deliberate in its image manipulation, the work also incorporates elements of chance, coincidence and the personal to produce what one might call a “surreal conceptualism”‘, or rather, an extraordinary reality.
It is easy to detect humor in the work, though it is hard to say just what is so funny. Too often we find ourselves pondering over our own reflexive response of laughter. And in most cases, we discover that our laughter is a defense reaction to the way his manipulation of the image jolts our expectations. Whether verbal (as in some of the early work) or, more characteristically, in his photo and media image pieces of the 70’s and ’80s, the works are first and foremost, paradoxes. They are like visual double-takes, mysterious forms of ambiguity, conjunctions of the conceptual and the contextual that stop viewers in their tracks, thwarting visual anticipation. Like visual haiku, they are designed to arrest the gaze in the face of the inexplicable that is at the roots of everyday, obvious reality.
Baldessari’s mazes of images, and shaped and framed pieces are like games of omission played within media image territory. The silhouetted figures and the dotted-out faces in his work, refocus the gaze away from the narrative abstractions of the larger photo and onto the incidental, the details. The disappearances and excisions of parts of bodies in his pictures disrupt our ability to ‘read’ the photographs’ story. If, as Ad Reinhardt said “it’s not what you do, it’s what you refuse to do in art that counts.” Baldessari’s oeuvre is a continual play upon this idea of absence and presence, subtraction and addition.
Spaces In the photos become isolated from their designated function so that the absent detail becomes the central object of attention. This space, in turn, rebounds back into the picture space left visible, creating a ceaseless interplay of shock tactics created to confuse and confound our normal perceptions of reality.
Baldessari forces us into a confrontation with everyday images that we are not usually willing to make. Blocking out and cutting up as visual formulae break up the inescapable narrative reading created by images that are juxtaposed, revealing arbitrary and incidental new meanings. Revelations of new myths?
In Zen, satori means a moment of enlightenment, an instant of sudden demystification. Like Zen satori, perceiving the nuances of Baldessari’s art is something into which our consciousness must be tricked. His interventionist approach to the image is directed at breaking the crust of the clichés and stereotypes that cluster around the habitual attitudes to the images of our everyday lives. His art has a lightness of touch that belies its radical underpinnings. Yet, happily, Baldessari has always remained true to his penchant for parody and ironic asides. Like an early ’70s print of lines written down the page, the kind that a school boy is forced to write as punishment:
“I will not make any more boring art
I will not make any more boring art
I will not.. ”