The California-based conceptual artist John Baldessari gained a reputation in the 1960s and '70s for works that combined texts and photographic images in ways that forced viewers to reconsider the relationship between word and image. Baldessari was challenging our notions about meaning in art, and even our notions about what could be considered art.
It's possible to take a crash course in Baldessari at the moment. If the exhibit of his recent work running at the Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore through Jan. 12 has you wondering where this guy is coming from, why then simply take a trip to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, where an extensive Baldessari retrospective remains through Jan. 6.
One of the more notable aspects of the retrospective is to see how Baldessari's recent work is less reliant on printed words and makes more extensive use of paint applied to the photographic imagery. He sometimes uses contrasting hot and cool colors as codes to how we should interpret human figures. But he still tends to paint white circles over the faces of these figures, denying us too easy a psychological reading.
If he's now more painterly, he's also more directly polemical in his new work. One can sense this shift toward greater immediacy in the final rooms of the Hirshhorn retrospective, and one can then see its even fuller expression in the exhibit at Grimaldis.
In the Baldessari show at Grimaldis, for instance, there is direct meaning to be had from the two-panel "Two Relationships (Handcuffs and Bear)." The color photograph on top is a close-up shot of a bear's snout placed against a curled human hand; the black-and-white photograph directly below it is a harsh close-up depiction of a man being handcuffed. If in the top photo, man and beast are co-existing in a peaceable kingdom, in the bottom photo, man is getting along in beastly fashion with his fellow man.
The more painterly aspect of Baldessari's new work can be seen throughout the Grimaldis show, but nowhere more keenly than in the upper panel of the two-photograph composition "Slice." The photograph has been really covered with paint, and very brightly at that, as a blue-painted figure struggles with a green-painted figure against a violent red background. One almost doesn't feel the need for the chain saw between them.
However, the fact that Baldessari is communicating so assertively is not to say that ambiguity has been squeezed out of his art. Far from it. The people in his painted photographs usually remain somewhat mysterious, even without the added possibilities of meaning that come from placing seemingly disparate photographs next to each other in the same photo-construction.
The eternal mysteries of group dynamics are perhaps best seen in "Hidden (With Onlookers and Swimming Pool)." This unpainted color photograph depicts a crowded suburban pool scene in which there seems to have been an incident of some sort that grabs the bathers' attention.
Attempts to define the pool-side incident are bluntly frustrated by Baldessari, though, because in this triptych we see the photographic pool scene to either side of a white board placed smack in the middle like a blank screen. So, as in life, you must project your own meanings onto an image that may strike other people differently.
New work by John Baldessari remains at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 523 N. Charles St., through Jan. 12. For more information, call 539-1080.