One of the leading figures and determining forces of late 1960s Conceptualism, John Baldessari is an artist whose work perpetually attempts to upset or confound all the conventions we use to judge and make sense of the world. 'I am constantly playing the game of changing this or that, visually or verbally' he has said. (John Baldessari, quoted in John Baldessari exh. cat. Los Angeles, 1990, p.1)
Four Men (with Guns pointed at their Heads) is a powerful photographic work made by Baldessari in 1988. Consisting of a series of seemingly unrelated photographs arranged in an unorthodox but strangely evocative composition indicative of the shape of a clapper-board, the work simultaneously presents and explores its own imagery as if through the distorted mechanism of a dream.
'While we're looking at a specific thing,' Baldessari has commented, 'something else is happening over there at the same time, and I'm interested in that something else, which however, we can't always catch if we try to get it directly.' (John Baldessari quoted in John Baldessari exh. cat. Los Angeles, 1990, p. 143)
By appealing to this other, wider but more unconscious way of seeing and understanding imagery, Baldessari has developed a mechanism of using seemingly unrelated photographic images in a way that throws the viewer back onto each one in a sharper and stronger way than could ever possibly be attained in a single image or rational sequence of images.
In this work it is the mental, existential shock and horror encapsulated in the idea and the act of a gun pointing to someone's head that Baldessari explores. Sandwiched between two mundane black and white photographs of American restaurant life of the kind propagated in the 1940s and '50s as reassuring images of home, comfort and prosperity, Baldessari has set four anonymous portraits of men with guns pointed to their heads. In a characteristic move, the identity, individuality and emotion of these figures has been removed by covering their faces with a blank white disc. This was a device that Baldessari first used in his large photographic work Buildings= Guns=People: Desire, Knowledge and Hope (With Smog) of 1985 and has continued to use since finding in it an effective way of removing the identity of figures and rendering them generic and as if from a dream. As Freud first pointed out in his The Interpretation of Dreams, the faces of people in dreams are often vague or indistinct while other trivial or more mundane things often assume enormous importance. 'A family bereavement, which has moved us deeply and under whose immediate shadow we have fallen asleep late at night, is blotted out of our memory till with our first waking moment it returns to it again with disturbing violence. On the other hand a wart on the forehead of a stranger whom we met in the street and to whom we gave no second thought after passing him has a part to play in our dream.' (Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans and ed. James Strachey New York 1965, p. 52)
It is this same sense of the dislocation of things, as experienced in a dream that Baldessari attempts to invoke in Four Men (with Guns pointed at their Heads), contrasting a full colour nightmare image with images that are supposedly more familiar and reassuring. In this way he opens both types of image to question undermining the conventions of how we view and respond to imagery at the same time as reasserting its extraordinary power over us.