John Baldessari

by Matthew Bedard

The Only Way to Get Across the Road Is to Be Born There

This May, during the annual MOCA gala in downtown Los Angeles, which was honoring CALIFUK cover artist, John Baldessari (born 1931), I watched a pair of gown-clad art coteristas tap-tap their pointy heels across the grand, temporary platform in Little Tokyo that housed our dinner tables—circular, primary colored tables, or dots, if you will, that dished homage to the photographic mug-stamping genesis of Mr. Baldessari’s subsequent global fame: some 200 solo shows, some 1,000 group exhibitions, and a bucketful of honors and awards, all similar and none alike to this evening’s. As the sparkly ladies made their way to the far wall of the gala’s pop-up, they stopped for a selfie. There was a snap, and then another, and then another, and somewhere in the effort to nail that perfect portrait, a glass of red wine went toppling, slapping and spreading across the floor. The ladies looked longingly at their lost wine, looked upward for witnesses, then tucked the phone and wandered off.

A moment later, a man on the gala’s janitorial staff arrived with a mop. As he guided his tool atop the spilled wine, the by-product of a momentary consumption of identity—no dots atop faces this time, only filters to be employed in post—the uplighting of the space saw his mop dance across the cream-colored, facing wall, stretching its five feet perhaps thirty in length. Gliding and absorbing, the stick’s reach seemed to ink out the cursive script—that which sits atop John Baldessari’s first print, a 1970 lithograph which followed his consummate burning of all the work he’d ever created between 1953-1966—charcoal in color, that spanned the cream wall’s entire width and height, from floor to ceiling: “I will not make any more boring art.”

Was this then, here tonight, late in May in Los Angeles, a decree not issued by the gala’s honoree, but rather this janitor, this man? This man perhaps a resident east of here, of the Inland Empire’s Pomona, where Baldessari is said to have helped shake the Pomona College phenom-foundations in the early ’70s—a former employee perhaps of the College (interestingly Forbes’ top College in America this year), before the school was as prestigious, before other jobs, before his family, two sons, one of whom he sat down to play a video game with, Resident Evil 36, before tonight’s shift, remarking to himself on the authenticity of the stabbing sounds as he punched a knife into a threatening ghoul’s back—considering that he’d actually heard this sound, once, and only once, but it was enough and the friend responsible for guiding the blade was never found out, and those days are done anyway. Had he ceased being boring? Was he responsible for this? Or was it one of the students at Pomona? Or Nova Scotia, where the work was originally conceived—Baldessari remotely “punishing” the pupils by mandating their writing of the statement across gallery walls before it would take form in his seminal lithograph—the willowy girl, called Dream because her parents were Québécois separatists maybe, already concerned about being boring and not living up to her name, shoving her instrument into the white walls so hard that the tip became distorted, and she ceased, leaving the “exhibition” and not returning, instead taking to Barcelona where Dream would become a man called Dean, and where he’d meet Valero at a tapas bar while selling hash, a motorist and tattoo artist hell-bent on transplanting to California, eventually doing so, leaving Dean and marrying an out of work beauty model who’d enjoyed too much sun, thence conceiving of an ADHD-diagnosed—but in fact rather dopamine-rich—son, who’d find himself 30 or so years later dreaming intermittently and sitting at art galas, trapped in some kind of joke he couldn’t wrap his head around, confounded to repetition, confounded to learn, to learn, to learn, to learn, to learn. Was it his scrawl then? Was it his scripted self-flagellation? Was it fairly new MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, who spent much of his toast lauding Baldessari’s return to MOCA’s board? Was it attendee Frank Gehry? Was it Climate Change? Was it presenter Louis Vuitton? Was it Mayor Garcetti’s? Was it yours?

The point is that it doesn’t matter. The point is that John Baldessari’s immense body of work interlopes, skips time, transfigures, dismisses, dons fashion, goes visage-less. When tasked with facing our magazine with a piece that tickled the tentacles of our silly CALIFUK (California, meet UK) theme, he elected to showcase a beleaguered, harpooned sea creature, likely hailing from the Pacific, the word “Belch” resting below the decidedly English wellies of its captor. Here now, a brief phone interview across 13 miles of The Big Orange’s hazy grid and gauze with California’s original art trickster, because it doesn’t matter.

How do you relate to magazines as an art medium?

I’m all for contributing to various ways to get work out, be it a poster, a magazine cover, a T-shirt, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll endorse it. I’ve done a lot of magazine covers.

I wanted to talk about your piece, “Learn to Dream.” Here you see the repetition of the words, as well as repetition of the visual format. Is there something to learning that is repetitive?

If you repeat something over and over again, you’re probably going to remember it. I’m sure that if some woman gives you her phone number, you’d remember it. You’d probably repeat it over and over until it stuck.

So its learning in this case is by way of rote memorization?

Sure. I did a famous piece, where I would write, “I will not make any more boring art.”

And dreaming is not something that is learned, or is it?

Well, that’s why I said “dreaming.” I don’t know if you can learn to dream, but even if it doesn’t work, I think it’s a good idea.

Well, there’s the dreaming while we’re asleep, where the subconscious exercises itself, but there is also the particularly American relationship to dreaming, such as self emancipation, or the assembling or building of things that are greater than you, or what you might accomplish. How do you relate to the American Dream ideal?

Well, I think the more you dream, the more is lost. That’s kind of an American thing.

Would you say there’s beauty in being lost?

Well, I guess there’s a sort of orchestrated symphony in being a pickle.

About five years ago you did an interview with Flaunt, whereby you spoke to the aggravating nature of Los Angeles giving way to creativity. Los Angeles often influences your work, but surely the world at large does too. What’s influencing you now?

Well, I guess I just finished a work, where I did a book about Cezanne’s images of his wife. I did a lot of images of her face, but blocking out her face details, and just retaining the shape of her hair as black. And I think the outcome is beautiful.

Is L.A. still making you angry?

Yeah.

And what about it?

What about it what?

What about it is aggravating?

It’s just not very beautiful.

In another one of your works featured herein, from “Morsels and Snippets,” there is this very nondescript imagery that corresponds with extremely definitive language, that of a particular cuisine: Risotto with Maine PeekyToe Crab and Santa Barbara Uni. Outside of the native and non-native provenance of certain ingredients here, I’d venture to say that this pairing of non-specific, arguably political yet dreamy imagery, underscored by such exacting, situational presentation, is similar to the dichotomies we’re hoping to explore with this CALIFUK issue, whereby Californian and UK cultures collide. With California, you have this dreamy imagery, yet these very severe underpinnings—economic disparity, the drought, the dysfunctional transport system. Any thoughts on the presentation of non-specified material with the specific?

Hey, I’ve got an idea for you. You should research American swear words and put them next to British swear words. They’re quite different.

And how would you feel about me running a section of those within your article?

Sure, that would be fine.

CALIF_______UK

Dick________Bellend

Pussy_______Fanny

Whore_______Slag

Fag_________Tosser

Jizz_________Spunk

Shit________Tom Tit

Piss_________Slash

Fuck Off_____Sod Off

Cunt_________Twat

Cocksucker___Gobshite

Motherfucker___Arse

Tits__________Jomblies

Another distinctly Californian thing is of course the entertainment business. Can you describe your attraction to screenplays. One of the  screenplay piece I looked at that didn’t make this layout possesses a similar moment of dichotomy—very specific tension between characters yet a non-placeable context. Is that what you’ve aimed to impart?

I’ll leave that up to you. I’ve always been interested in language, so that’s my little attempt at using language. I like movie scripts. I like reading them.

A lot of the language in scripts is designed to orchestrate that which goes unsaid on camera, or is pared out in the final edit. Do you work around the idea of an end result?

That doesn’t matter to me.

What doesn’t matter?

It doesn’t matter what you say. It makes no difference. It’s an out of context language.

One of the features within the magazine explores the varying nature of billboards in L.A. 1

I’ve done billboards, yes.

Well, one of the issue’s contributors is Angelyne, who of course became famous through her own billboards and is known to be famous for being famous. I wanted to ask you about fame. How do you feel about fame in pop culture as it crosses over to art?

I think with entertainment, and people in movies, these figures or whatever, they’re huge, like on the billboards, but they can feel, well, a quarter inch tall. There is no comparison. Well, there is a comparison, but it’s huge—large and small.

How about the amassing of fame via the Internet?

I can’t comment on that. I don’t keep up.

I was proposing a collaboration on this issue to a publisher of a UK literary magazine, and she told me she was attracted to L.A.’s “tired glamor.” Why do you think she’s saying that as an outsider?

Well, I guess you’d have to ask her.

Another feature in the issue sees us stage an English-style tea ceremony in an empty, drought-stricken swimming pool. Are there any ceremonies that you enjoy at the moment? Are you ceremonious?

Well, cutting my fingernails and brushing my hair. And taking a shower.

Is there anything tired or glamorous in your brushing your hair, or cutting your fingernails?

No, they’re just things I have to do.

1 From Martin Amis’ Money (1984) Cape, London. “In L.A, you can’t do anything unless you drive. Now I can’t do anything unless I drink. And the drink-drive combination, it really isn’t possible out there. If you so much as loosen your seatbelt or drop your ash or pick your nose, then it’s an Alcatraz autopsy with the questions asked later. Any indiscipline, you feel, any variation, and there’s a bullhorn, a set of scope sights, and a ’coptered pig drawing a bead on your rug. So what can a poor boy do? You come out of the hotel, the Vraimont. Over boiling Watts the downtown skyline carries a smear of God’s green snot. You walk left, you walk right, you are a bank rat on a busy river. This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hour, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE – NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run!”  

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