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THE ART GALLERIES

La Cienega Area

October 10, 1986|Suzanne Muchnic

John Baldessari's current exhibition is rather like a suitcase with lots of compartments--some of them secret. The assembly of conceptual art looks straightforward enough as you enter the spacious gallery: a batch of black-and-white photographs and occasional words combined in odd-shaped panels. But once you start looking, you find so many unexpected connections between juxtaposed images, printed words and titles that you suspect you may be missing half of them. Faced with the occasional piece that remains resolutely mute, you don't know whether to blame the artist or yourself for being too dense to get it.

A piece called "Proof," for example, juxtaposes expressive mug shots, a value scale, a couple of mouths (with and without braces), a panorama of Chinese peasants and the words proof sheet . Among other things, Baldessari seems to be weighing the photographer's proof-sheet approach to editing against the idea of pictures as evidence (of events or the success of orthodontics). The value scale also offers proof by measuring light (and veracity?), while the peasants might be a measure of their country. More than eliciting an airtight interpretation, Baldessari seems to be pointing out the complexity of assigning a single meaning.

In several works, he blots out faces with big dots of solid-color pigment, draws connecting lines or outlines images on the photographs, thus obliterating personalities or directing attention to movement or incidents. He also plays with words: "Stares" is the title of a work incorporating staring faces and stair-stepped strips of cropped photographs; "Heel" might be called "Heal," for it presents multiple images of injured feet.

At the very least, this major show of 1986 work demonstrates why Baldessari's influence is so pervasive as to be impossible to measure. He's not only a guru to the conceptual-intellectual crowd, he pays attention to formal matters and he addresses social issues. That may not satisfy those who know that real art is oil paintings in gold frames or marble statues, but it pretty well covers the contemporary waterfront. (Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., to Oct. 18.)

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