John Baldessari, "Person with Guitar (Red)"
Through May 14, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla
by Jeanne Willette
Who would have suspected that underneath that austere, ascetic mantle of cold conceptual art that envelops John Baldessari lurks a witty and rollickingly sensuous Rococo artist? Although Baldessari made his bones by promising us he would “not make any more boring art,” his art can be one-note and predictable – once you get the joke you can move on. But this print retrospective reveals a man at play with his prints, which are not so much prints but printed paintings of photogravures of postmodern collages.
John Baldessari, "Person with Guitar (Red)," 2005, 5 color screenprint mounted on sintra, 35 x 41", published by Gemini G.E.L.
Surprisingly for a man of “post-studio” art, these prints are works of careful craft with multiple layers of embedded references, created in collaboration with master printers coast to coast. Further, Baldessari deconstructed the concept of the print by making unique images, such as his "Table Lamps." The "Cliché" series (1995) have large pastel areas that seem to have been painted on with printer’s ink, suggesting that each print is one of a kind. The prints are best when they depart from the now-familiar banal photographs of people with their faces de-faced by large dots of primary colors, such as "Falling Star" (1989). But in that same year, Baldessari produced two wonderful aquatint photogravure prints, "Rollercoaster" and "Two Sets." The artist who has confessed to being a bit of a formalist uses luxurious soft papers and a spare simplicity of design for these prints, which are, yes, simply beautiful.
The post-millennium works are, on the other hand, consistently delightful. In the face of the grim decade, Baldessari, working with Gemini G.E.L., became fascinated with noses and ears, guitars and hands, freely floating in multiple levels. These large colored shapes juxtaposed to photographed body parts are printed on a plastic board called Sintra, which lifts certain portions and creates an edge that must be painted so that these levels of the print are not discernable in reproduction. The subtle shift of dimensions in "Nose and Ears, Etc." is offset by the jaunty colors contrasted to the actuality of a large and inherently uninteresting body part. The decidedly decorative direction of "Heart (With Pearls)" underscores the surprise at seeing a batch of Baldessari’s with his inner decorator unleashed.