Los Angeles

John Baldessari

Margo Leavin Gallery

The same guy who, as legend has it, dramatized his conversion to Conceptual art in the mid ’60s by setting fire to the traditional canvases that marked the beginning of his career has returned to painting. Perhaps, thirty years later, Baldessari is following the path taken by many famed senior artists: retiring from his post as guiding light to indulge, at last, in those quaint, modest pleasures prohibited by the constraints of leadership. Or maybe, as many of his fans are insisting, he’s just pulling another fast one, that is, these aren’t really paintings at all but, rather, a “deconstruction” of painting.

Granted, Baldessari hasn’t exactly traded in his archive of movie stills for an easel, only expanded the role of paint in his familiar format—collaged photographs on paper hung behind glass encased in thin black frames. He no longer limits his brushwork to tight, flat circles in primary colors that conceal the actors’ faces and other main points of interest in the photos. Paint now comes in a variety of shades, darkens broodingly or lightens into pastels, streaks and pools in thin washes, and every now and then busts loose in high-kicking squiggles. What’s more, Baldessari gives this activity center stage, leaving a greater part of his white fields free of photographic imagery. If there’s any deconstructing going on, painting seems more its agent than its victim.

Most of the new work features two blow-ups of the same movie still placed one above the other. Though you may think Baldessari is aiming for a Warhol effect by bringing into focus the nuts-and-bolts of the Hollywood dream factory, he’s got other tricks up his sleeve. He often colorizes one of the copies, flipping the bottom image upside down, while breaking the version above into small fragments that float amid flourishes of oil stick and acrylic. A capsized photo of a courtroom drama fills the lower half of Two Books with Persons and Observers (Courtroom), 1995, while, above, two inconspicuous details from the same scene are reprinted right-side up, dispersed among odd painted shapes. Between the twin images there exists not so much a physical correspondence as a pictorial and subjective one that resembles the play between water and sky, suggesting shadows and reflections, afterimage as afterthought. Yet at the same time, the resulting works seem to promise a coherence they can never quite achieve; they remain suspended somewhere between narrative development, critical dissection, and a formal unity.

Baldessari’s ever-more-minute exploitation of this nether zone not only places him in a class all his own, but expands the intertextual range of his art. By embracing painting, he encourages a larger chunk of art history to chat it up with the archives of movies and TV. The conversation is usually an intoxicating one: a triple-decker montage titled Three Running Figures (One Splashed), Trash Cans, and Poles (with Large Blue Shape), 1995, has, at its base, an upside-down film still depicting a group of teenage boys galloping across an inner-city street, a scene of rebellious youth and urban decay whose sentiment and poetry, deftly elaborated by Baldessari, looks like it originated with François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. Only the serious tube addict will recognize it as a frame from My Bodyguard, a 1980 run-of-the-mill Matt Dillon vehicle. By blotting out Dillon’s face with a disk of green paint, Baldessari passes up the hipness-points a reference to the former teen idol would’ve garnered him. (What he won’t pass up is a chance to crack jokes; in another piece, a yellow puff of paint, blackening at the tips, hisses from an actor’s armpit.) When you’ve experienced as much success as Baldessari has, you probably aren’t too worried about how urgent and timely your art looks, yet, without even trying, Baldessari’s still does.

Lane Relyea