Monday, August 9, 2010

Dig It All, Long John

"What makes things meaningful? Is it the mere indication that something meaningful is, in fact, present? Is it the attention we then invest in it? Is it our capacity to subsequently rationalize that experiential phenomenon into a communicable verbal analog: to describe it in words? Is it in the act of communication? Such questions have been inherent to the act of artmaking since prehistory but began breaking surface in the 20th century, nowhere more elegantly than in the work of L.A. painter/photographer John Baldessari, whose retrospective exhibit "Pure Beauty" is up at LACMA through September 12. Having debuted at London's Tate Modern last year, it will movie to NYC's Metropolitan Museum later in the fall.

A perfect example of Baldessari's eloquence on these philosophically pointed matters is his series of Commissioned Paintings from 1969, a group of identically formatted canvases, each with a centered, more-or-less photorealistically rendered image of a finger indicating a feature in the environment — often a smudge or stain on a surface — with a caption below by a professional sign painter, reading "A Painting by Patrick X. Nidorf O.S.A." or "A Painting by Anita Storck." Mr. Nidorf and Ms. Storck were — along with a dozen or so other amateur painters — recruited from SoCal art fairs by Baldessari to faithfully reproduce photographic slides of one of his friends walking around and pointing at things that caught his attention.

These works overtly flip the bird to East Coast geometric painter Al Held's alleged contention that "Conceptual art is just pointing at things," but more subtly at the hard-line conceptualist position that an actual artifact — especially something as conventional as a representational painting — was an unworthy vessel for such rarified discourse. When people lob the phrase "conceptual painting" at me, my first response is puzzlement. What kind of painting is not conceptual? Elephant painting? I beg to differ.

Much of Baldessari's extensive oeuvre, in spite of the fact that he cremated the bulk of his early paintings in a 1970 action (complete with commemorative plaque and book-shaped urn), examines not only such epistemological conundra but the specific manner in which they may or may not be embodied in visual language. And the pointing finger was one of his primary and most effective pictorial widgets. In the early '70s Choosing series, in which "players" take turns indexically indicating their selection of one of three possible parallel linelike vegetables — carrots, beans, rhubarb, etc. — Baldessari simultaneously skewers game theory–based conceptualism and aesthetic taste; the core tenet of conceptualism's nemesis, all that corny formalism so beloved by the bourgeoisie. That's a hell of a fusion kebab.

At the same time, the Choosing offers stripped-to-the-bone testimony of the necessity of decision making, even in the form of apparently random, indifferent or uncontrollable choices, as the central engine of creative activity. In Line of Force (1973) Baldessari reduces the signified and signifier to a single, repeated indicative gesture (snapshots of a finger pointing offscreen) seething with exasperation at our species' seeming inability to just look but recalling the Zen admonition to recognize conceptual formulations as 'fingers pointing at the moon.'"

"it will movie to"?!!

Read the rest of Baldessari: Point Man here.

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