John Baldessari: Pictures & Scripts – Marian Goodman Gallery – Comedy Is A Serious Business

John Baldessari

Marian Goodman Gallery, London and Galerie Marian Goodman, Paris present two simultaneous exhibitions by artist John Baldessari. The exhibition ‘Pictures & Scripts’, at the London gallery presents a series of new works, the artist’s first solo exhibition in London since his retrospective ‘Pure Beauty’ at Tate Modern in 2009. Concurrently at Galerie Marian Goodman, Paris, ‘Early Work’ will show for the first time a selection of important early works from the artist’s practice.

At marian Goodman, London, the artist presents the viewer with a series of 20 new paintings that juxtapose still images appropriated from black and white films. These film images are cropped to heighten their ambiguity, deliberately isolating iconic film roles like cowboys, gangsters and ingénues, removed from their original context, and given a new narrative function.

The appropriated film stills capture moments of paused action, within which selected forms have been over-painted in monochrome fields. The excerpts of dialogue between unknown characters hint at conversations between art world insiders. Baldessari presents pure deadpan humour in this exhibition, juxtaposing these insider conversations with the glamour of Hollywood Noir, mocking the dialogue via an intentionally heavy hand. Playing with Hollywood grammar with profoundly comic results.

The history of the artist’s practice of appropriation of image and text can be traced back to Baldessari’s early experiments in the mid-1960s, wherein empty canvases were painted with statements derived from contemporary art theory, one of which, ‘Space’, 1966-68, is being presented in the Paris exhibition.

Each painting is a diptych composed of an image and text element, the text half of each work presents a snippet of a larger dialogue, forming a relationship with the image presented. The viewer is not aware of the source of either text or image – except one still is definitely of Herbert Lom in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and another from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ – amusingly juxtaposed with the text: ‘DEBBiE (SOFTLY) The ITSY BITSY SPIDER climbed on the top. He made a silky web and spun without a stop. Then came a fly and landed on its back. So ITSY BITSY SPIDER ate it as a snack.’

The artist posits absurdist juxtapositions of text and image, having been an obsessive collector and cataloguer of film stills and has used them in his art for decades. The art exists at the intersection of the text an image, neither one or the other, both are transformed by its relationship with the other; creating a third element. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that they’re looking at merely appropriated material, nothing original in nature, whereas in fact the juxtaposition is a transformative act, the creation of something wholly new, each an original work of art existing ‘in-between’.

This re-contextualising of appropriated material is slightly reminiscent of Richard Prince’s Re-photography – in the nature of its subtle re-cropping, obfuscation of direct intent, and humour, creating a slight shift in perspective from the original source material. Resting between the values of appropriation and fine art, much in the same way as Prince’s series ‘Cartoons’ and ‘Jokes’ – 1987 to 1990 – to a more ‘Rauschenbergian’ Pop Art setting of monochromatic canvases with printed texts – yet Baldessari’s authorial voice is the conscious decision to create humour from these juxtapositions – unlike Prince’s intentionally muted non-authorial position.

In re-contextualising the image and text, the artist posits the inauthenticity of the primary source, introducing a temporary shallowness, a kind of vacuity, and light-hearted aspect to the viewers perception of the work – as Herbert Lom perpetually grins at the viewer – often ‘Noirish’ Americana projects filmic archetypes, as the dialogues espouse the seriousness of verbal art transactions. It’s all rather amusing. Where it comes to Baldessari’s latest oeuvre of work it seems that W.C. Fields was indeed correct, comedy is a serious business. But in this instance a serious business with more than one purpose. This is no cheap laugh.

John Baldessari: Pictures & Scripts – Marian Goodman Gallery, London – April 25, 2015

Words: Paul Black photos and Vine video : P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved


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