John Baldessari is fascinated by the habit we have as human beings to make assumptions about other people we do not know at all. We tend to characterise strangers in an instant, trying to familiarise ourselves with their 'type' or perhaps place them in a category with others we know. He explored this habit by applying his famous coloured circles, signifying different personality types, to the figures in found-images. He tried to contradict obvious characterisations and their corresponding colours: "Say I'll put yellow on a man, standing for some arbitrary sort of madness, but in fact he might be a nice stable sort of guy, despite the way he looks, as somebody very chancy and chaotic. Or (it) might be something really chaotic, but I want you to think through my colour indication of blue that it is very beautiful, idyllic and safe, something of the platonic ideal we aspire to. Orange I have been using as a sort of wild card It can mean whatever I want it to mean, but in the area of danger, for I use it always as an antithesis to blue, the flip side of the coin." (Baldessari quoted in C. van Bruggen, John Baldessari, New York 1990, p. 191)
Baldessari's early colour codifications began when he identified red as perilous and its complement, green as anodyne or 'pastoral'. This structure allowed him to translate words into a visual communication.
Hitch-hiker (Splattered Blue), 1999, depicts what one could deem the strangest of strangers: a lone rambler, who we know nothing about. But our assumptions about roamers on the vast open road tell us to err on the side of caution. Nevermind that he appears to be in army fatigues, perhaps a war hero stranded in his own country. What we do have to go on, as passersby on the highway, is that nagging assumption that hitch-hikers are probably trouble. Best not to get involved. According to Baldessari's colour codes, this is exactly the sort of assumption he wants to play on. He has assigned this figure a green disk, an indication of security. His character is innocuous. But Baldessari further forces his prescribed characterisations on us with the blue splatter. Here, Baldessari takes it upon himself to declare this figure idyll and innocent according to his colour scheme. Our assumptions are once again brushed aside as a bold proclamation by the artist directs our perception of the hitch-hiker. The orange disk in the background, used as contrast to the safety of the blue, now indicates uncertainty and danger ahead. What lies on the unknown horizon has now been portrayed as the real trouble, not the figure.