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"This show is cynical in the good sense. There is a good sense. Or anyway there was, and now is an excellent time to revive it. The Greek Cynic philosophers -- including Diogenes, who sought an honest man -- were vocational outsiders who called things by their names. They were radically ethical. They opposed truth to pleasure and espoused truth absolutely. They exasperated regular people on purpose. A few New Testament scholars guess that the historical Jesus was a Hebrew Cynic who got, besides killed, drastically misunderstood.

 

Our present sense of cynicism rests on the wisdom that extreme candor is toxic when self-serving. The old Cynics suffered from and for unwelcome truth. Their bastard heirs seek excuses for smug attitudes and rotten behavior. The small-c cynic knows, in Oscar Wilde's words, "the price of everything and the value of nothing." The big-C Cynic pointed to how price -- that is, every sort of advantage-seeking motive -- pollutes value. The veteran Los Angeles Conceptual artist and teacher John Baldessari has always had a subtle, refreshing touch of the Cynic.

 

This show samples a series of paintings, first exhibited at last year's Venice Biennale, that resume a motif of Baldessari's earliest mature work, from over 30 years ago: banal photography blown up on canvas with gnomic captions lettered by a professional sign painter. Here the photographs are black-and-whites of isolated common objects, imprinted by computerized ink jet. The mechanical images, set off by broad white borders, have a stippled, vertically striated texture like furry black rain. The captions are from or imitate those of Francisco de Goya etchings: terse phrases of flat, despairing sarcasm.

 

Here are some "Goya Series" captions and their respective photographic subjects: "This Is Bad," an empty bowl; "And There Is No Remedy," a beat-up scrub brush; "These Too," a pair of high-heeled shoes; "Right," a snarl of string; "Less Than Perfect," an overripe peach; "There Isn't Time," a floral arrangement; "And," a paper clip; "So Much and More," a pencil; and "It Couldn't Be Helped," a goofily smiling mouth floated Cheshire fashion. Also shown are perfunctory collage studies for the paintings, with photos and lettering affixed to graph paper."

 

wonderful cynicism:
john baldessari

by Peter Schjeldahl

 

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