Imagine a world in which everything is the exact opposite of what it is. That's the prolific algorithm behind much modern fiction, used by writers as different as Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick. Anyone wanting a visual equivalent should see "John Baldessari: Pure Beauty," a 150-object survey now filling the second floor of LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum. In his text paintings of 1966-1968, Baldessari upturned the rules of composition, technique, and taste. (Above, LACMA's Wrong.) One might think that the use of a palm tree in Wrong was incidental. In fact the LACMA show traces Baldessari's use of palm tree imagery over four decades. Why palms? "I like banal images and I can’t think of anything more banal than a palm tree and an ocean," Baldessari said, speaking of his room-sized installation Brain/Cloud. The role of palms in Baldessari's art is something like the bowler-hatted gents in Magritte, a deadpan embodiment of everyman's taste. In North American culture, palms appear in photos of vacation destinations, of tropical "paradises," and of Hollywood. They symbolize unintellectual hedonism. Palm trees are culture-free, despite growing in Rome and figuring in Old Master interpretations of the Flight into Egypt. There are palms in Gauguin's paintings, though not nearly so many as you might think. Gauguin was equally entranced by the unfamiliar forms of pandanus and breadfruit. Not many palms are to be found in the "Eucalyptus School" of idyllic California landscape painting, either. The equation of palms with paradise cannot be too much older than the "Mad Men" and Highwaymen (pictured, Highwayman James Gibson with a torrid Florida landscape).
At times, palms have been an embarrassment to the more high-minded Angelenos. During the long gestation of the Getty Center, the leadership agonized over whether to have palms on the campus, in no small part over concerns about what New Yorkers would think. The Getty folks ended up giving palms the pollice verso. Baldessari represents the next phase in the evolution of an oppressed minority. Hip-hop used the n-word, gays called themselves queer, and Baldessari made L.A. art with palm trees. The palm trees were intrinsically "wrong" subject matter, discomforting to East- and West Coast viewers. The LACMA venue of this traveling show adds yet another layer of nuance. Under ex-New Yorker Michael Govan, LACMA has reverted to palm tree boosterism. In a 2009 piece in the Huffington Post, Govan or his web minions wrote that "the palm tree has become a powerful cultural object, an iconic image that has drawn legions of people to a beguiling version of paradise." That sentiment finds expression in Robert Irwin's palm garden at LACMA, an apparent irony-free zone. The "curated" palms now butt against Chris Burden's Urban Light. The streetlights even look a little like palms, stark and sociopathic, with a fillip on top.
For Baldessari on Brain/Cloud, see a video on LACMA's Unframed blog. For still more on the aesthetics of inversion, check out the Superman comics' Bizarro Code: "Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!"