It’s all his fault. All that highfalutin, unapproachable conceptual art everywhere that gets your mum in a tizz whenever it gets nominated for a Turner Prize. All John Baldessari’s fault. The Californian is a granddaddy of conceptualism, a pioneer of ideas as art, and he’s still churning out the smart stuff well into his eighth decade.
These new works will look familiar to anyone who saw his Tate retrospective in 2009, or any of his recent work, it’s all recognisably ‘late Baldessari’.
Each work follows the same pattern: the top segments feature stills from black-and-white Hollywood movies, the middle segments are zoomed-in chunks of Joan Miró paintings, and along the bottom of each canvas a white band of space displays a single word. ‘Reliable’, says one. ‘Necessary’, ‘Unfailing’.
Elements in all the images are obscured by precise globs of blue, red and yellow paint. By over-painting bits of the photos and the Mirós, Baldessari makes you see little parallels between them. In one image, a man attacks someone with a shovel – the action is echoed in the fluctuating abstract marks of the Miró below. That trick is repeated in every work, turning photographic images into abstract marks and transmogrifying abstraction into actual things. The elements all start to mirror each other, they relate and mingle.
With those big bold words, Baldessari is reinforcing that interconnectedness, all the similarities between the elements are ‘pertinent’, ‘intrinsic’, ‘relevant’. Baldessari sees the aesthetic value in everything, he sees threads of beauty weaving between all things, and wants us to see them too. He’s saying art is everywhere.
The show is simple, so are the paintings, and that can leave you feeling a little deflated – but the simplicity is the point. Because they’re not really paintings, they’re ideas. And anyway, Baldessari at his weakest is still more entertaining than countless artists at their best.