Comments/Context: This show takes us back to the late 1980s, to a focal point in the long artistic career of John Baldessari. In the earlier part of that decade, Baldessari's multi-part photocompositions of film stills and found photographs had been critically well received, and the conceptual underpinnings of appropriation and mediated viewing which had been so much a part of the CalArts way of thinking were becoming more broadly accepted. By the end of the decade, Baldessari had started to experiment with larger installations of these multi-part works, extending and expanding the way they were presented. The three works on view here provide a snapshot of that particular period of time, and highlight how Baldessari was challenging conventional notions of viewing space.
While these works include many of Baldessari's important visual motifs (vertical ladders of images, colored dots obscuring faces, the following of eyes and sight lines, the rebus like quality of constructed juxtapositions), their main innovation is the destruction of the idea that there is any right place to stand to see them. No longer is the viewer asked to stand square in front of an image hung 57 inches from the floor, with the remainder of the works in the show hung in a toilet bowl ring around the gallery. In fact, that whole behavior is impossible with these works, as Baldessari has enlarged the scale of the images to such an extent that standing too close makes them impossible to take in. He has also hung the images in unlikely locations: near the floor, up high bumping the ceiling, in the nooks and crannies of the space rather than always on the broad central walls. The effect is one of space set free, of photographs in complex dialogue with one another in a single room installation form, where the head spinning whole trumps the significance of any of the individual parts. There is no longer one single dominant viewpoint, and instead the viewer is subjected to a shifting set of sculptural perspectives, connections, and spatial relationships as he/she moves through the gallery.
In the best of these works, there is the sense that the photographs are talking with each other, physically oriented by Baldessari to face one another and interact. Whether its the conversation of a dwarf and a rhino, a giraffe and a man with a telescope both looking at (and silently commenting on) the same ladder of images, or desert wagon trains and arctic mush sleds both following baby polar bears, it's as if the pictures don't need a viewer; they're connecting all on their own. With these works and others from this period, Baldessari freed photography from the spatial constraints of the standard frame and opened up the idea of more complex installations of carefully sequenced imagery. Not long after these pieces, Baldessari started to build up the works into three dimensions, adding jutting space and thickness to his spatial repertoire.
More generally, the innovations that Baldessari introduced with these installations are lastingly fresh, and in many ways, not enough contemporary photographers have internalized the radical ideas embodied in them. Perhaps the new challenges and opportunities offered by installations of digital imagery will rekindle an interest and appreciation for these smartly original constructions, as there are still plenty of photographic lessons to be learned from the way these artworks have been imagined.