Images and words define one another

In the early 1970s, Californian artist John Baldessari accumulated a substantial number of his former paintings and destroyed them all. A year later, he composed his first «I will not make any more boring art» pieces, a work in which this scrawled phrase is reiterated line after line on a piece of paper. In part a reaction to the hegemony of minimalism, the work also expressed Baldessari’s emerging interest in language and its incorporation into art and spoke of him as a conceptual artist. From that point on, Baldessari became increasingly interested in text and image combinations; his broad-ranging artistic output was tied by a unifying concern with how the pictorial (photographs for the most part) and the linguistic help recontextualize one another and provide new, unexpected meanings. In Baldessari’s text-and-image works, words animate images and draw attention to small, barely noticeable but significant details while images make words both sound and look differently. Words become visual and images become texts. Their combination usually produces an engaging tension, a heightened awareness of form and content and a feeling of suspension created by things implied and not fully revealed. Baldessari’s works are both beautiful to look at in their stylized, almost formalistic compositions and challenging to think about in terms of content. Spare but dense with levels of meaning, they blend formalism with conceptual art to an arresting effect: his one-man show at the Bernier/Eliades Gallery shows this distinctive combination. The works are the digital prints of film production shots (most of them are production stills from American movies of the 1950s and ’60s which Baldessari collected back in the ’70s and are part of the artist’s large archive of found imagery) combined with a word or a short phrase that reads somewhat like a caption of the image. All black and white and evocative of old-time elegance but with a punch of modern formalism, the images are, like the words, stark and emotionally distanced but at the same time layered with different meanings. Examples of his current work include the image of aligned women divers which reads «Parallelism» and matches the parallel format of the black-and-white image; the cropped, elongated, vertical picture of a factory which reads «Power;» the image of a three people in conversation, a man between another man and a woman reads «Between.» The word usually describes an aspect of the image, either in terms of its content or its form, or both. Ranging from the obvious and matter of fact to the surreal (in former works visual paradox is more pronounced), the captions work together with the images to surprise and tempt the viewer in seeing the multifold, often strange aspects of images and situations even in what seem like the most ordinary cases. In Baldessari’s work what seems easy acquires profundity, what appears to be straightforward becomes ambiguous, and disparate things become connected. Baldessari, who once said in an interview that art should make things look strange, plays with the associations of meanings and forms. «I do not try to provide conventional meanings. For example, this image of the women divers which reads ‘Parallelism:’ One would probably not think of that if they saw a line of women, but at the same time it is not something far-fetched,» Baldessari told Kathimerini English Edition during his short visit in Athens on the occasion of his solo show. «I do not think that you can lecture in art. When you lecture nobody listens. You have to be more surreptitious and clandestine, you have to seep into them without them realizing it. One of the tests of art is if you can get the viewer to change his mind about something. I do not think that it happens too often, but when it does then the art is probably successful,» said Baldessari. If they do not make the viewer change his mind, the text and image works at the Bernier/Eliades Gallery most certainly do provide a visual and mental exercise, making us think about what we prioritize in images, the things that we first notice and those that escape our awareness. Images may have various meanings, some more obvious than others: it is this ambiguity and relativity that his work alludes to. «There is ambiguity and enigma but up to a point. I like leaving things open but not completely. If there were a room with 12 doors I would lock 10 of them, it is a game I play. I do not want it too general and I do not want it too specific; it is a kind of flirtatious play with the viewer,» said Baldessari. «I like to tacitly withhold information. A colleague of mine once told me that what he liked about my work was what I leave out, which I think is brilliant, and it happens to many images.» Meaning however, is always tied to form. Baldessari said he is the first to admit his interest in the formalistic aspects of his images: composition, format, the play of color. He uses his experience as a painter to work on his photos, carefully gradating light and shadow and experimenting with different photo-processing techniques. As for the words, they too often allude to a visual aspect. But words also have an autonomous value. «I do not think that the word should simply be a substitute, a surrogate for the image, I think it has to work so well that the word is as strong as the image. If the choice is successful one should not prioritize over the other; in other words, the image should not be so weak that the word takes over and the word should not be so weak that the images takes over,» said Baldessari. This careful balance between text and image, the ordinary and the exceptional, the semantic and the aesthetic is what snares the viewer’s curiosity and captures his gaze. Both beautiful to look at and challenging to think about, Baldessari’s works draw a discerning and playful view of the world of images and the relationship between pictures and words. Works by John Baldessari at the Bernier/Eliades Gallery (11 Eptachalkou, Thiseion, tel 210.341.3935) through January 31.