John Baldessari

Galleria Primo Piano

John Baldessari has always played with the enormous capacity of images to free meaning; that is, stylistically (and thus ideologically) to communicate their representational contents to an observer whose relationship to the image is, perceptually, one of stimulus-response, or, psychologically, more probing than usual.

In this exhibition, Baldessari showed three pieces; seven other pieces were shown simultaneously at the Klemens Gasser gallery in Bolzano. All the work consisted of photomontages in which a pragmatic, direct relationship to the observer is developed. Large object (orange) in water and blue moon, 1991, is typical: a large paint stain covers the area of the image where the focal point, the narrative crux of the story, should be. It is likely that something dramatic is taking place there, in this case in a swimming pool, but we cannot see it; Baldessari lets us see only the surprised and alarmed reactions of the other swimmers, who all look in one direction, toward the place where something “is happening”—which, for those of us looking at the photomontage, is only a painted stain. The predominant psychological and semiotic logic of the image thus also constitutes the moment of reception.

In Clouds (incomplete): two sailboats/chaotic situation, 1992, the upper part of the work depicts a scene where two sailboats, one “treated” in red, the other in green, are about to cross paths beneath a sky filled with puffy clouds that seem to have been taken from Romantic painting. In violent contrast, the lower portion shows a sort of meeting hall, apparently caught by the photographic lens at the moment after an explosion, with overturned and broken chairs and confusion throughout. The realism of both images further heightens the contrast between them.

The third piece, Two birds (feeding): playthings/nature: passer-by/money (with lamp), 1992, belongs to a recent series, “Open Works.” The formal construction of the piece is very different from the first two; there is a mix between the usual rectangular format and silhouettes of reproduced figurative elements and the cutout shapes of photographed objects. What comes to mind is the Berlin Dada avant-garde movement (John Heartfield, for example), which turned photomontage into its strongest weapon. Here there is no directly political message, but a refined play of associations between money, children’s toys, and animals that feed off each other, all images arranged on the wall to form a sort of arch, the bases of which are represented by rectangular pieces that contain images of California landscapes and vegetation. The images, filtered through the media that Baldessari uses, are taken apart and then reassembled according to a logic that is different from the one that governed their creation. It is a logic of pure poetry or of a simple personal interest in certain aspects of individual and social experience, a logic that probes the pragmatic and the rhetoric of images, or that analyzes the processes behind the formation of public opinion.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.