Look-Alike Works Make for an Uncommonly Provocative Show

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rather like scientists, the best artists run "what if" experiments. "What if I soften the contours in my figures," asked Leonardo, "so that a jaw line and the neck below it run into each other?" The result was a realist effect no one had seen before. "What if I show a scene where everything's been broken into tiny dabs of paint?" wondered Monet, while only a few decades later Duchamp tested what would happen if he showed a urinal as art.

Baltimore artist Christine Bailey tests an almost equally strange notion. What if one artist were to suddenly start working in the very different style of a local colleague -- not simply copying specific works, but fully inhabiting that colleague's trademark way of painting? "Christine Bailey: New Work," on show in a corporate lobby in Baltimore, is the experiment. Its results can be seen in the tempest that it caused on the Baltimore art scene.

"I realize that, legally, there is little that can be done to punish you for committing what the art world considers one of the most unforgivable and disgusting acts -- purposefully copying someone else's art work. But . . . I have faith that your studio and endeavors are destined to fail as you choose to lower yourself to such pathetic levels," reads one e-mail sent to dealer and curator Jordan Faye Block, who placed Bailey's project in that Baltimore lobby. An e-mailer on the other side of the issue wrote: "You have breathed life into the Baltimore art scene. I hope you will always have this willingness to take on risk and the tenacity to follow through."

Block says she's happy to be in the middle: "My idea on art is that if it doesn't get you talking, it isn't working."

Everything about the show, right down to its title, manages to stir things up. Sure, the exhibition showcases new work by Bailey, the 33-year-old artist who teaches part-time at the Corcoran's art school. (Full disclosure: My wife also teaches there.) But the single most important thing about this new work by Bailey is that it looks as though it might be new work by Cara Ober, the very different and rather successful female painter who also lives in Baltimore, and often blogs about the city's scene. Washingtonians may know Ober from the exhibition she had a year ago in the Flashpoint space downtown; in March she opens a commercial show at the Randall Scott Gallery on 14th Street NW.

Bailey's paintings capture all of Ober's telltale tricks and tics. Nostalgic imagery is pulled from older sources. Bird books, old encyclopedias, decorative wallpapers? Check. Tender, pastel colors -- soft washes of pale yellows, blues and pinks -- with brooding splashes of black on top? Check. Scraps of dictionary definitions, presented in old-timey fonts? Check. An overriding sense of capital-P Poetry, without ever making clear quite what that poetry's about? Check.


"When I saw the invite for the show of your 'new work,' I felt like a mother whose children had been raped and murdered," wrote Ober in an e-mail to Bailey, when she first got wind of the project. "I see my paintings as precious babies and I love them more than you can imagine." She threatened to sue.

Since then, after a classic "full and frank exchange of views" between the two women, Ober has grown calmer. But she said in a phone interview this week she still resents the sense she gets -- probably correctly -- that her work was singled out for copying as an example of what's most sellable in art. But now she recognizes that Bailey and Block's goal wasn't simply to turn a profit from another artist's labors.

Yet when it comes right down to it, why shouldn't Bailey work in Ober's style, whatever the motive? There's no copyrighting an artistic look -- especially when it's one that's been out there for a decade or two already, and is shared by painters working all around the globe. The fact of such artistic trends -- of a trademark style and its subsequent knockoffs -- is partly what Bailey's show is about. In a "clarifying note" that she agreed to mount this week on Ober's own blog site, Bailey said she was interested in taking on a business model from the world of fashion -- the model of the "designer replica" -- "to see how (or if) that could translate to the business of art making within our local community."

Bailey had long asked herself whether there was a way to maintain an ethical studio practice within a marketplace built around providing luxury goods to loft dwellers. But, as she explained in an e-mail to Ober, she suddenly thought, "What if I just dropped that facade, that myth of an ethical studio practice, and just went with a certain business model. Could I be the Old Navy to Cara Ober's The GAP?"

Bailey certainly wasn't interested in "stealing" Ober's style, the way a forger might. "I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," she said in an interview this week, pointing out that she signed all the works with her own name and gave herself top billing in the exhibition title. Rather, she was interested in the tension between fiction, which is central to most art, and deceit, which is seen as crass and unartful. She achieved that tension, she said, simply by moving the "fictional stuff" of artmaking outside the frame of the picture, where it usually stops.

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