"John Baldessari is so successful, he carries absolutely nothing in his pockets," says gravelly voiced Tom Waits, halfway through a six-minute film about the 80-year-old, 6-feet-7-inch-tall, L.A. pop-conceptualist. "Not a thing," Baldessari confirms.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the duo behind the Facebook romance documentary Catfish, made this nonchalant short in November for LACMA's inaugural Art and Film gala. It screened at SXSW this spring, then appeared on YouTube mid-May. And while Baldessari has his empty pockets and a half-century of art successes to his credit, the film's quick popularity had to do with a tweet by someone with a different kind of success -- Dianna Agron, who plays Quinn on Glee. "This is why I love Dianna," and "Her links never ceases to amaze me," said YouTube commenters, though others pointed out that actor Jonah Hill and Tom Waits tweeted to their followers, too.
Regardless of the source, Baldessari likely appreciated the plugs. He's never chased exclusivity. "I'm interested in leveling the playing field," he says in the film, at Tom Waits' prompting.
The same week Agron sent her fan base Baldessari's way, the artist debuted a series of new works called "Double Bill" at West Hollywood's Margo Leavin Gallery, for an exhibition open through June 30. Like those ubiquitous images in which Baldessari put colored dots over faces of people in film stills, this new work strikes that great, cartoon-strip-style balance between black-and-white and color. It also uses those confident capital letters he has used many times before. But this time, Baldessari is leveling a playing field where players are less instantly familiar than the movie stars, paper clips and palm trees from his past work.
For each image in "Double Bill," Baldessari picked two paintings from art history and combined them digitally, omitting parts and mixing up others. Then he printed the mash-ups onto canvas and painted into them as he saw fit. In a strip of white canvas at the bottom of each, he printed ellipses and the name of one artist: "... AND CEZANNE," for example. If you want to know the second artist's name, you have to guess. The game is something a resourceful art history teacher might devise to prime a 100-level class, which means these pieces might feel alienating to someone who has never studied art or spent hours wandering through a museum's permanent collection. But if there were just a multiple-choice list at the gallery desk (there's not), even an art amateur might be able to pick out the mystery artists.
Consider the image below, ... and de Chirico. Say you know de Chirico was an Italian Surrealist working mainly in the 1910s. You might guess he tended toward hyper-realistic renderings and decide the book in the foreground comes from him. You'd be right. Then say you're left with the options of Cezanne, a French artist working up until around 1900; Picasso, the cubist who, before cubism really existed, spent a period painting figuratively in blue monochrome; and Gericault, a 19th-century French Romantic. Would it be so hard to divine that the below is a composite of a de Chirico painting and a portrait by Picasso (one that wasn't originally just blue -- Baldessari took some liberties)?
If your answer is no, you can probably have some fun treating "Double Bill" like trivia. If it's yes, then you'll have to appreciate the images for their own sake and ignore the teaser of the text below, assuming that's possible. It might not be. "Getting" at least the gist of the references -- understanding who each artist is and being able to spot his style in the mash-up -- is a big part of the show's point.
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On the surface, Baldessari's project seems particularly current. It's about using digital media to "collaborate" with other culture producers, more in the vein of the mash-ups of DJ culture than "appropriation art," where someone like Sherrie Levine might re-photograph someone else's photographs to ask what originality really is and who belongs in art history's cannon.
But the appeal of mash-ups has a lot to do with the immediate familiarity of their themes and subject matter. In DJ Terry Urban's "You'll Find a Way, Player," a blend of "International Player's Anthem" and Santigold's "You'll Find a Way," Andre 3000 sings, "These girls are smart, play your part" and Santigold shoots back, "You better watch out, run for cover." You don't have to know either artist intimately, or at all, to know two current, gendered ideas of sass and strength are going head-to-head.
There are other artists taking a stab at the visual mash-up, and ending up with results more instinctual and less specialized than Baldessari's. One artist named Brian Kennon, exactly 40 years younger than Baldessari, has worked in L.A. for just over a decade. His projects often take book form and pull together images from 20th and 21st century art and pop and alt-culture. In one of his best books, Untitled #1 (Mike Kelley, Silver Ball), you flip through close-ups of the bulbous aluminum ball artist Mike Kelley sculpted until it starts to look like a space rock or something else weirdly organic. Then you find yourself looking at a Rorschach of a forest, then at artist Richard Hawkins' portrait of a pretty young punk as a beheaded zombie. Then the forest starts to drip apart like the ghostly blood beneath the zombie's head. No need to know Hawkins or Kelley to get roped into Kennon's hallucination.