This is my first art review of 2017 and, in the last few months, the world has changed dramatically. It’s hard not to look at everything through the prism of Donald Trump’s election as leader of (for now, at least) the free world. Culture is taking on new metaphors and resonances. Optimism, hope and humour? Can there still be a place for them? Are such emotions still possible or even appropriate as we stand on the cliff top looking out, like stout Cortez on a peak in Darien, towards the stormy seas of the future?
Born in 1931 the Californian artist John Baldessari was honed by the zeitgeist of the 1960s, that decade of revolt, revolution, muddled thinking and creativity. The granddaddy of conceptual art he’s known for his magpie appropriations of painting, photography and language. In an increasingly prosperous post-war world his concerns were to dismantle old shibboleths and stretch early 20th century artistic boundaries to see how elastic they could become. Iconoclasm was the name of the game. By the early 1990s he was a celebrity. A 1990 retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, travelled across the United States and Canada. With wit and irony he deconstructed the processes of contemporary artistic practice to include language. “I guess”, he said, “it’s fundamental to my work that I tend to think of words as substitutes for images. I can never seem to figure out what one does that the other doesn’t do, so it propels me, this kind of bafflement.” His aim has been to be as “disarming as possible”, whilst establishing or deconstructing meaning through juxtaposition. By beguiling his viewers he’s offered his own laconic visual commentary. Often citing semiotics and, in particular, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, as a major influence on his treating language as sign and on his deliberate play between word and image, he’s taken phrases from art manuals and quotes from celebrated art critics and painted them onto the surfaces of his canvases. For him there has been no reason why a ‘text’ painting shouldn’t be just as much a ‘work of art’ as a nude or a still life. Everything has been up for grabs.
Looking at this new show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London I couldn’t decide whether John Baldessari is, now, a dinosaur – irrelevant to the current political and social landscape of this new autocratic post-truth world – or a sensitive barometer of it.
Juxtaposing sections of Miro paintings with what the artist calls an image of ‘Life in General’ – black and white Hollywood film stills accompanied by single words such as ‘Reliable’, ‘Right’, ‘True’ and ‘Necessary’ – he creates rebus puzzles whose meanings remain tantalisingly elusive. In the 1960s and 70s obfuscation and cool were de rigour. Warhol talked of being a machine, while David Bowie assumed a palimpsest of different personae that never allowed us to discover the real man but acted as screen onto which his followers could project their wish fulfilments and fantasies. To be committed, to take a stand or be seen to care was just not very hip. Art became a game of dissembling, of ‘blurring boundaries’ and mixing media. A code, a puzzle, understood by some and vilified by others.
In a number of the film stills used in this exhibition Baldessari has painted over their surfaces with acrylic, blotting out faces with blank areas of skin coloured paint and erasing other figures completely. Everything is reduced in these inkjet prints to the same texture as though history, itself, was being erased. The paint surface and idiosyncratic brush strokes of the Miros are no different in intensity and quality to the pixilations of the reproduced film stills. Everything appears to be of equal value (or no value). Meanings are not common but open to individual interpretation. There can be no shared readings.
In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin talks of the effects of modernity on original art works. Film and photography shared a role in this change. For Benjamin mechanical reproduction creates the loss of the aura of a work of art. This aura represents a work’s originality and authenticity. A painting has an aura while (for him) a photograph does not. The photograph is an image of an image, while the painting is unique. Looking at Baldissari’s new works, where the playfulness of Miro’s individual mark making is reduced to a series of trademark signs, juxtaposed alongside the obliterated faces of many of the film characters, I couldn’t help but think about Benjamin’s thesis. The question that came to mind was: is this witty iconoclasm, with it endless deadpan obfuscations, relevant now? Or are we in need of a new art that stands in opposition to the current political and ecological narratives springing up at an alarming rate all around the world?
There’s an argument that it’s never been more important for art to rediscover something more visceral, that artists are not machines but eloquent citizens in a society in crisis. Others might postulate that these self-referential works are important exactly because of what’s left out and obliterated. That what is obscured, hidden and erased – the gaps in the possible ‘readings’, the possible alternative ‘truths’ – function as a perfect metaphor for the new world order. Maybe what Baldessari is showing – whether he meant to or not – is that in this post-truth world there can be no coherent story. That truth, like the fluctuations of a kaleidoscope, depends on how you turn the lens and who’s doing the looking.
Miró and Life in General: Reliable, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 11/16 x 49 in. (243.1 x 124.5 cm) No. 19348
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery
Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 25th February 2017.