John Baldessari & Rirkrit Tiravanija
1301PE, Los Angeles
July 28 to September 15, 2012
A simple theme – text as image – links the work of these two artists in a playful and surprising way. John Baldessari’s new screenprint, Learn to Dream, (2011) is mounted alone in the first floor gallery at 1301PE. In this work, produced by Gemini G.E.L. and published by Brain Multiples, the artist renders the simple and evocative phrase in six horizontal bands, yellow, black, cyan and light blue – the colors of sun and sky (and, while surely not relevant, the Bahamian flag). Almost more of a whimsical suggestion than a directive, the repeated phrase, "Learn to Dream," becomes hypnotic, mantra-like.
On the surface, the message is straightforward, but it could be variable, subject to the viewer’s interpretation – or propensity to dream. It’s fitting that the typeface, Churchward Montezuma 96 Extra Bold, designed by New Zealand photographer Joseph Churchward, feels like a hybrid of a modern and antique font, characterized by ripples, as if in a dreamlike vision.
The messages become less cryptic as the viewer goes upstairs, where the concept of words as art continues, but with a different slant. In a 2011 series of six uniform, untitled, enamel-on-steel paintings, (all 48 X 32 inches) Rirkrit Tiravanija juxtaposes explicit text from outside the world of dreams, on pure monochrome grounds – red, yellow, orange and white. A wry range of commentary on the grim realities of society, the paintings prod: All you need is Dynamite, Murder and Mayhem, Police the Police, and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.
Confronted, especially by two versions of, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, one in black lettering on white, the other white on red, the instinctive reaction might be laughter. The whole series has an underlying tongue-in-cheekiness, but these two paintings are redolent of calculated double entendre, as of course, they themselves are presented up against the wall.
The lettering is all caps, crisp, left justified to the frame, leaving a dramatic opposing area of negative space on the right. The paintings are immaculate, perfect in their delivery, not a brushstroke in sight, a finish fetishist’s delight. Like the polished surface of a new car in a showroom, they are smooth and shiny, reflecting both ambient natural and artificial light. In, All You Need is Dynamite, with white lettering on a yellow background, the contrast is more subtle. If Tiravanija isn’t really challenging us to take action, he succeeds in making it challenging to ignore what he is saying - and how.
In the work of both artists, the images resonate with color, but the overall impact is embodied in the words. So much so, that McLuhan might have had to reconsider. Here the symbiotic connection between message and medium is bent in irony, with message predominant.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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