Los Angeles

John Baldessari

Margo Leavin Gallery

John Baldessari’s work, like the ideology of post-Modernism itself, has been closely linked to post-Structuralist philosophy. Baldessari, like many of the conceptual clones he has helped spawn, dutifully questions the language of representation and lays bare the concealed structures of signification that constitute the received information of the popular media.

Over the past ten years, this strategy has evolved into a familiar, in many cases clichéd, statement of the obvious. In lesser hands, the paean to the open text—with its dangling signifiers, deconstructed rhetoric, and debunking of the autonomous art object—has become as dogmatic and “closed” as the worst abuses of Modernist fetishism. Art, rather than assimilating and moving beyond theory, merely illustrates it.

Baldessari, through his cunning wit and original intelligence, usually manages to avoid such pitfalls, largely because his work—despite its overt use of recognizable film and television imagery—is always predicated on the primacy of the idea. His appropriated photographs—with their visual and verbal puns, ambiguous metaphorical allusions, and multiplicity of possible “meanings”—prompt an infinite number of subjective readings; his benign visual mechanisms trigger an open-ended free-associative process.

Baldessari’s role in this slippery often frustrating semantic playground is, however, largely a passive one. Like a conceptual agent provocateur, he makes his pronouncements, then sits hack to watch viewers and critics argue themselves around in circles. This has a lot to do with Baldessari’s inherent distrust of closure, of achieving anything like a transcendental state of reification. Baldessari takes the passion of creation only so far, leaving the onus of “reading in” or psychologizing to us, the analysts, the consumers. Images thus beget ideas, which beget more images, and so on, forging a labyrinth of cause and effect that serves as the metaphor for our innate anxieties and desires.

The success and failure of Baldessari’s position rests upon this question of displaced transcendence. Although his fragmented, cropped, and juxtaposed media images raise questions about how information is manipulated and conveyed in a media-saturated world, they are themselves victims of his audience’s desire for “truth” and some form of narrative continuity Ironically enough, through his editing and recontextualizing Baldessari both encourages and undermines this subjective process.

In Stares (With Lamps), 1986, for example, Baldessari stacks eight horizontal photographic strips, each of which features a face at the far edge of the frame that “stares” across the mise-en-scéne to another figure on the opposite side. Most of the extraneous figures in between have been cropped or blocked out with white paint, so that we automatically “read” the picture along the axis of each stare. Baldessari’s contrived alteration of “reality” acts as a conceptual and metaphorical channel, removing the informational “anxiety” from the image, only to restore it as pure idea. This ploy, with its simultaneous revelation and exploitation of the mechanics of manipulation, is an illusion of transcendence, as if Baldessari were willing to go only so far as either auteur or interpreter before leaving the onus of decoding to us.

The problem with such creative self-effacement is that Baldessari cannot prevent us from trying to complete the work for him. Each exhibit thus. becomes a critical challenge, a cerebral battleground where audiences can either accept or struggle with the apparent paradoxes set before them. What the artist might see as mere simulacra in search of an absent signified, we are free to cement together as parts of a viable metaphysic. That we seem duty bound to work harder at closing down his work than he does in opening it up, Baldessari no doubt finds most amusing. He remains the wise teacher, we the precocious pupils.

Colin Gardner