Created within the mature period of John Baldessari’s acclaimed conceptual practice, Christmas presents the viewer with a visually arresting composition of two black-and-white photographs. By juxtaposing the high-contrast images of two Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus dolls with a close-up of gloved, gesturing hands, Baldessari puts forward an enigmatic montage that operates in a suggestive space between dream and reality. With its elusive combination of found imagery and obscured faces with the artist’s trademark coloured dots, the work perfectly demonstrates the deadpan humour, striking juxtapositions and mash-ups, as well as the use of appropriated imagery that has made Baldessari’s visual idiom so distinctive and influential. Executed in 1986, Christmas was notably among the first works to feature the artist’s now iconic single-coloured dots, which he first experimented with in the seminal photo-mural Buildings=Guns=People: Desire, Knowledge, and Hope (with Smog), 1985 (The Broad Foundation, Los Angeles) and has continued to explore up until the 2000s.
Christmas bears witness to the major shift in Baldessari’s practice form the 1970s onwards. In 1970, Baldessari incinerated all the paintings he had created up to 1966 as a radical act of disavowal in his notorious conceptual piece Cremation Project – sparing only his early text works and those that combined painting and photography. In 1971 he proclaimed, via the eponymous artwork, ‘I will not make any more boring art’. Working and living in the enclave of Southern California afforded Baldessari a new experimental freedom, allowing him to radically fuse the language of Conceptual Art with Pop Art’s appropriation of mass media imagery. Though his oeuvre encompasses a range of media, Baldessari is best known for his groundbreaking use of photography that he initiated from the 1960s onwards. His extensive archive of found photographs, sourced from publicity, press photos and films, provided Baldessari with a wealth of material through which to create intriguing and evocative image constellations.
Like Baldessari’s best works of this era, Christmas displays the wry sense of irony and intellectual detachment that speaks to his bold declaration ‘If there is anything political in my work then it is to be found in the ability of my images to question the nature of imagery itself’ (J. Baldessari, quoted in M. Sanders, ‘John Baldessari’, Another Magazine, Autumn-Winter 2003, p. 390). Rejecting straightforward readings, Baldessari’s visual montage technique invites the viewer to probe their subconscious depths in order to unravel the underlying subtext of his work. Here, while the red and green dots suggest certain avenues of interpretation – signaling danger and safety, respectively, as well as representing traditional Christmas colours – they also obscure the figurines. As such, the underlying narrative between the disparate fragments remains elusive. By suggesting a plethora of interpretations, but dictating none, Baldessari’s enigmatic montages ultimately point to both the relativity and plurality of meaning. As Thomas Lawson aptly observed, ‘it is not the discovery of truth that is at the libidinal center of the work, but the pleasure of looking’ (T. Lawson, ‘Das Theater des Geistes. John Baldessari’, Parkett, no. 29, p. 43).