Californian artist John Baldessari is known for his film, photography and painting since he started working in the 60’s. In the late 70’s and 80’s he began to use other peoples’ photographs in his own work and use film stills from old Hollywood films. He gathered images in abundance and used them to create photo collages, experimenting with the juxtaposition of images to explore the nature of communication and perception. Baldessari’s arbitrary juxtapositions make us question how we read images.
Concerning Diachronic/Synchronic Time: Above, On, Under (with Mermaid) 1976: The pictures stacked vertically represent events taking place simultaneously (synchronically) while those juxtaposed horizontally represent successive instants (diachronically). But only the middle pair adhere to this rule, showing a boat moving across the horizon. On the other in hand, the others are formal rhymes, in the pair at the top a plane turns into a bird and in the pair at the bottom a submarine turns into a mermaid. The middle images can be read in terms of narrative while the others must be read in terms of association.
Violent Space Series: Nine Feet (of Victim and Crowd) Arranged by Position in Scene, 1976: Everything is hidden except for the circles which reveal people’s feet. The arrangement of the feet, in conjunction with the title, suggests that this is the scene of a crime where a crowd of curious onlookers are standing around a figure lying on the ground (evidently the victim). It’s amazing how much we can read in an image with such little information.
Kiss/Panic, 1984: photographs of hands holding revolvers frame two central images, one a panicked crowd scene and the other an intimate kiss, offering two extremes of human emotion: fear and passion. All the photographs are in black and white except the one of the kiss. The menacing mood created by the pointing guns connotes a certain anxiety about intimacy while the kissing mouths suggest a warmth of human feeling in the midst of this panic and aggression.
Spaces Between (Close to Remote), 1986: collection of horizontal scenes in which the distance between two characters grows wider. Each time more imagery separates them: a bouquet of flowers, scenery, other people)
Horizontal Men, 1984: A sinister work in which images of standing men are rotated so that they appear to be lying down and stacked one on to op of the other, like a stack of bodies. Refers to the Holocaust, based on the images of bodies in concentration camps
In his work, John Baldessari continually challenges notions of beauty and disregards conventional rules of what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to art –his piece Wrong comes to mind, a photograph in which he purposefully defies the rules of photography and composition. His artwork urges the viewer to question these rules, for example in his series Choosing (A Game for Two Players), where he plays with personal perceptions of beauty (David Salle calls it a “faux exercise of taste”)
The game is simple: one player arranges three samples of the same vegetable in a line (eg. three green beans), the second player is asked to choose the “best” of the three, based on his/her own aesthetic criteria. That lucky bean moves on to the next round where it is placed next to two new beans, and again player two is asked to pick a favourite, and so on. Meanwhile, the exercise is recorded in a series of photographs where we can see the player’s fingertip pointing at the chosen vegetable. The absurd game just goes to show that taste is subjective and there are no universal rules for beauty, be it a turnip, a person, or a work of art, we should not conform to conventional standards.
Have you ever kissed a palm tree?
Creative exercise: Spend long periods of time contemplating tea stains on a napkin or clouds in the sky. Imagine magnificent creatures and landscapes, let your imagination run wild!
“I love the clouds… the clouds that pass…
up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!”
[The Stranger, Charles Baudelaire]
And if you’re a hard-core cloud lover, you might even consider joining the Cloud Appreciation Society!
Here’s a peek from their manifesto:
We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.
Now let’s look at some Clouds in Art:
Dutch artist Berndnault Smilde is known for his man-made indoor clouds. He makes them from a combination of “frozen smoke” and moisture and he immortalises them in photographs.
Clouds have featured in many of this Californian artist’s work. He’s represented the cloud as a brain, and he’s tried to mimic the shapes of clouds using cigar smoke.
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz created the wonderful series, Equivalents, where he photographed cotton wool clouds in various different shapes. Can you picture them in the sky?
And, of course, there’s the Belgian Surrealist artist, René Magritte. Clouds were a recurring theme in his work and are said to represent the unconscious mind. He was known for his witty and thought-provoking images which challenged preconditioned perceptions of reality.