John Baldessari: 1 + 1 = 1
Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow
21 September - 24 November 2013
Review by Anya Harrison
‘I like to create new meaning. The way to do that is to bring two things together’ It could end up as ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ disastrous or a third meaning is created.’ (John Baldessari)
For John Baldessari’s debut institutional exhibition in Russia, and following on from his exhaustive international retrospective of 2009, Garage Center for Contemporary Culture presents a four-part series of 44 new works, seen together for the first time. Entitled ‘1+1=1’, the exhibition is the outcome of Baldessari’s tireless perusal of art history manuals for source material and is a tongue-in-cheek reminder that ‘one artist plus another artist create a new artist’.
Continuing his near half-century exploration of the relationship between image and text, the new pieces, completed between 2011 and 2012, pitch iconic artworks from the 18th to 20th centuries together with images from popular culture. Their collision creates a space brimming with cryptic clues and potential, asking us to connect the dots. In a series entitled ‘Double Bill’, Baldessari invites viewers to engage in an art-historical name game. ‘’ AND Balthus’ (2012) is a confrontation between a human figure from Balthus’s ‘The Automat’ (1933) and an abstract form whose curves contrast with the angularity of the man, pictured mid-stride. That form turns out to be a segment from Magritte’s iconic ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (1929). But here, it is flipped on its side and enlarged beyond all recognition. Herein lies the premise of Baldessari’s new work - things are never quite what they appear to be. Everything is taken to its extreme.
Working from traditional art history textbooks, fragments of masterpieces by artists such as Warhol, Chardin, Matisse and David are paired with one another or sections of text to create a state of limbo situated somewhere between easy recognition and the uncanny. Film noir and song titles are carefully inscribed on the canvas and act as subtitles to reworked classics, although here they serve to delay the traditional reading of meaning in an image through text. A bunch of cherries, bursting with saturated colours, acquire a sinister character in ‘Double Feature: Sudden Fear’ (2011); their shiny exterior is transformed into a purveyor of latent danger. It is a testament to the power of context in shaping meaning, a subject that is now synonymous with Baldessari’s practice. It also hints at the fun the artist must have had concocting these strange pairings to force an intellectual ‘double take’ as we grapple with their mutant offspring.
Whichever path one takes through the exhibition - there is no pre-defined route - one encounters print after print, each brimming with self-conscious coolness and daring the viewer to unpick its conceptual knots. After four or five works, though, the same pattern emerges, making the exhibition decidedly one-noted. The play on mirroring and déjà vu extends to the curators’ decision to offer two entrances, each one opening on to a permutation of a Matisse/Warhol theme - ‘Double Vision: Warhol’ (2011). The end result, in the words of Garage’s director Anton Belov, is ‘a very clean exhibition’. Perhaps too clean.