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Paul Dean

Picture Worth a Thousand Wrong Ideas

January 17, 1987|Paul Dean

An amateur snapshot, quite elderly, very corny, fuzzily enlarged, is creating a warm intrigue at the splendid new Anderson Building of the County Museum of Art.

"It's my father's favorite and he's been back to see it several times," said a museum worker. "He finds it so annoying."

Formed by Santa Monica artist John Baldessari (you don't really paint a work that is a photograph developed from a negative projected onto a canvas covered with light-sensitive emulsion), the exhibit takes its message and title and essence from a single-word caption below the photograph: WRONG.

It shows a man against a palm tree in front of a Southern California cube. Two bedrooms one bath. Likely built in that Pacific Acres, no-down, returning-GI boom of the '40s. Swamp cooled. With a van in the driveway. But what's WRONG with that?

"It is the overhead wires," is Exequiel Vengco's guess. He's a museum security guard. He's been looking at WRONG for two months now. "See, the man is against tree. If wind blows, wires touch tree and electricity grounds out through the man. Very dangerous."

True. Except that the lines are telephone wires.

"I suppose if it said RIGHT under the picture that would also be art," went the mutter of one woman's search for meaning during a recent visit to the gallery. "Is that what it means? That nothing is right or wrong in art? Right. Oh dear."

Said the college student: "It's a communist statement. It is saying that the capitalist dream is one man, one car, one house in a California suburb with all the luxuries . . . but that such materialism is WRONG."

Good try. Except the photograph was taken in a town rarely considered a destination of the American Dream: National City.

Said the high school student: "He looks like Monclovia's dad."

Wrong. The photographic model in WRONG actually is artist Baldessari.

Any tour, any day at the Anderson (open weekends 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) produces more wild guesswork than Double Jeopardy.

One art student to another: "You really know what bothers me? People win doctorates with things like this."

Said his fellow, reading from a description and history of the work: " 'Contemporary Art Council . . . Young Talent Purchase Award.' Now that's what's wrong."

Said the wife in a La Costa sun visor: "WRONG? I dunno. That artist? Maybe he's crazy."

Said her husband in the Pebble Beach sweater: "I like it. I like it. But I don't know why."

A woman tugging a rather-be-anyplace-else preteen: "Look, that's just like grandma's house. Now, let's go over and look at the giant comb. That's really nice."

A man who was more interested in the construction of the Anderson, right down to its sprinkler system: "It's a put-on."

A thoughtful young lady: "It makes me think of things. But I don't know what it makes me think of." Her curious, tolerant young man: "To each his own."

Then, one callous observer of today: "The man is an illegal alien and the photograph will tell the folks back home that he made it to California."

Among viewers were many literal types who approached the work as if it were one of those old comic-book contests: Find 10 Things WRONG in This Picture.

"It's out of focus and the palm tree needs trimming."

"That van is parked on the sidewalk."

"The grass has stopped growing."

"The man is just pretending he owns that house."

Of course, it is none of the above.

Yet something is WRONG and the error has been the ruination of a trillion snapshots. All beginning greats, from young George Eastman to little Annie Liebowitz, have damned it. Yousuf Karsh learned of it with his first box camera. Matthew Brady checked for it before making his portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

And one museum visitor saw it. Then she shrieked in triumph. "I got it. I'm always telling my kids not to do that. That's what happened with my wedding pictures.

"The guy in the picture has a palm tree growing out of his head."

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