The Tip of the Iceberg: John Baldessari at Marian Goodman Gallery
By Elliott Eglash
The conceptual artist John Baldessari has forged a career out of inventive captioning. In most cases, captions serve an informative purpose, marrying images to words in a manner that provides meaning or context for the audience: a happy union. Baldessari’s captions are more like odd couples. In one early work, the artist strikes a blissfully simple pose in front of a palm tree, above the word “WRONG.” In another, an extreme close-up of a woman’s piercing gaze appears next to a page from the script of an obscure melodrama about desire, aesthetics, and personal grooming. In both examples, the image instructs us how to read the text, while the text teaches us how to see the image. This process raises questions about how we read, how we see, and particularly how we see art—and about what those things have to do with each other, anyway.
Another way of thinking about it: what difference, if any, is there between looking at an iceberg, looking at an image of an iceberg, and reading about an iceberg? Attempting to answer this question would be one productive way of moving through Baldessari’s recent exhibition “Hot and Cold,” at the Marian Goodman Gallery. The show consists of a series of eleven photographic pairs, each presenting one “cold” image of an iceberg next to one “hot” image, generally of an erupting volcano. Baldessari has augmented the photographs with a layer of paint—the icebergs get covered in white, while the volcanoes ooze orange acrylic, mimicking the look of fresh lava. And in a final, characteristic touch, Baldessari welds each image-pair to a pair of captions. The volcanoes sit atop all-caps captions of certain stock phrases (“HUH?”, “A BUSY OFFICE,” “THE FAT MAN…”), while the icebergs are subtitled with text from the script of the classic noir “Sunset Boulevard.” This latter pairing produces an odd effect: the dialog drips with longing, anger, jealousy, and greed, while the icebergs simply sit there, coldly unfeeling. Or perhaps that’s the point—the images are simply the tip of the iceberg, both literally and metaphorically, while the raw emotions from the script lurk beneath our relationship to the natural sublime. When we see an iceberg, we feel awe and fear. The iceberg feels nothing—and then it melts.
The images of icebergs in particular feel like a pointed commentary on our natural world, and the alarming rate at which it’s disappearing. Baldessari’s decision to overlay the photographs of icebergs with white paint here creates a ghostly absence that both mimics and erases the actual photographic subject. The pictured icebergs are both present and not, much like real-life icebergs still exist, even as they’re melting and collapsing at ever greater rates.
As these natural features degrade and die off, all that we’re left with increasingly is our own representations of those features—it’s less and less possible for most people to have an up-close experience withour planet in its unbounded majesty, even as it’s easier and easier for them to turn on “Planet Earth.” Baldessari gets at this uneasy opposition most directly in “TINNINESS, GILLIS All my things?” On the right, a craggy, jagged mass of ice is surrounded by a painted, all-black backdrop, and sits above a bit of dialog in which “Gillis” lists some of his many material possessions: “All the eighteen suits, all the custom-made shoes and the eighteen dozen shirts, and the cuff-links and the platinum keychains, and the cigarette cases?” This litany of objects starts to feel hollow and shallow next to the melting ice, a feeling which Baldessari captures in the other caption of the pair, which reads, simply, “TINNINESS.”
Not all his images are so pointed, however. Even as the thematic resonances and allusions shift from image to image, Baldessari’s unique interest in natural forms remains constant. He takes volcanoes, icebergs, and sand dunes both as endangered objects drawn from a disappearing natural world, and as geometrical figures, as occasions for abstraction and gesture. He overlays these real-world images with our ideas of what they “should” look like (icebergs should be pristine and pearlescent; volcanoes should be spewing lava skyward at all times), which in the process makes them both more familiar and more alien. The real-life iceberg, that is, is not nearly as recognizable to us as our own idealized mental images of an iceberg—and Baldessari seems to be saying that, sooner or later, the latter is all we’ll have left.