Ear Sofa Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting)
October 12–November 14, 2009
Opening on the eve of his eagerly anticipated retrospective at Tate Modern, Ear Sofa; Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting) is the first ever tableau vivant created by acclaimed American artist John Baldessari, a living installation which epitomises the wry wit, visual ingenuity and conceptual vigour which has defined the artist’s practice for almost five decades.
The installation centres on an ear-shaped sofa, on which a model sits, posed and poised, flanked on either side by a pair of nose-shaped, wall-mounted sconces. The sofa is framed by a large decorative semi-circular arch, and the gallery’s glass frontage is shrouded by a sheet of sheer stretched silk. The palette, proportions, and geometrical forms deployed in the construction of the tableau are redolent of an Art Deco aesthetic, which further contributes to a sense of grand theatricality. The allusion to (or illusion of) Hollywood’s Art Deco glamour in the exhibition’s design has been developed by Baldessari in collaboration with acclaimed American production designer Naomi Shohan, whose credits include her BAFTA-nominated work on American Beauty (1999), Training Day (2001), I Am Legend (2007) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010).
Ear Sofa; Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting) is an amusing riff on a number of themes that have long concerned Baldessari. Faces and physiognomy, and particularly the orificial and sensory features of noses and ears, have been present in various guises in Baldessari’s work throughout his career. For Baldessari, representing the face and its features offers ways of exploring myriad conceptual questions, including the problem of perception and the physiological basis of experience, and the constitutive role of faces in forging (and erasing) human identities and selfhoods. From early paintings of isolated features such as God Nose (1965), to his graphic vandalism on found photographs such as Gavel (1987), in which the faces of local dignitaries were obliterated with circles of symbolically charged colour, utilising the social significance and aesthetic absurdity of facial features has been a consistent motif in Baldessari’s diverse practice.
The visual isolation of particular facial features, indeed their fetishisation, also owes much to Baldessari’s ongoing interest in Surrealism, particularly in the work of Belgian painter René Magritte. Baldessari took the opportunity to explore this in the exhibition Magritte and Contemporary Art (LACMA, 2006), bringing together works by Magritte with the works of contemporary artists. Baldessari’s interest in noses and ears also has formal and historical resonances: ‘Thinking about art history, it seems that lips and eyeballs have been getting a lot of attention, but I haven’t seen many examples of ears and noses. I suppose they just don’t separate very well. I mean, floating eyeballs and lips seems to work okay, but not noses and ears, so I decided to free the nose and ear’ (John Baldessari in conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Miami, 2006).