John Baldessari, a leading conceptual artist from the West Coast, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (through Jan. 6), later to go to the Whitney Museum in New York. So his show of new works at Grimaldis (through Jan. 12) stands as a major event of the season.
In the past Baldessari has used old black-and-white movie stills, cutting and juxtaposing them to create new arrangements that make the most banal material reverberate with complex meaning. His use of dots to blank out the faces of people heightens this effect, making them at once more universal and more mysterious.
In this new work, Baldessari has used color rather than black and white; and in addition to the use of dots he blanks out whole heads and even whole bodies with paint. The results are more painterly, sensuous surfaces that are more visually inviting and accessible than past work.
But they are not less deep, although they may look it at first. Individually, these works are loaded with possibilities of meaning, and as a group they add up to a collective cry.
"Hidden (With Onlookers and Swimming Pool)" is a photo of people around a swimming pool with an off-center 40 percent of it blanked out, nothing but a white rectangle. What's going on in what we can see of the photograph makes us curious about what we can't see, which seems to be the essence of it. The idea of the center of contemporary life as an emptiness, a blank, is reinforced by the form of the work as an off-center, skewed triptych with a blank in place of the central and most important image in this religious form.
"Allegiance (Blue and Flesh)" consists of two panels, the top one a courtroom scene and the bottom a group of military cadets. This may posit the rule of law over the rule of force, or suggest that those civilians who send young men off to war should be tried for murder.
"Two Relationships (Handcuffs and Bear)" shows a preference for the natural state over the results of the flawed social contract. "Three Active Persons/with Standing Person" juxtaposes today's frenetic pace with the serene contemplation of nature, and today's "ideal" of perfection of body with the perhaps romantic ideal of perfection of mind. Other works exalt democratic values over the danger of false leaders posing as crusaders; one of them looks like a specific indictment of Reaganism.
These works are open to more than single interpretations -- that's part of their fascination and their depth -- but together they suggest to this viewer a desire to return to traditional values and democratic ideals, and they also argue the healing power of nature and possibly art as opposed to the false gods of money and power. Against the pessimism of many of the messages, however, the color of the images offers a bright counterpoint, suggesting that hope is not lost if we can see what's wrong.
This is a significant show.