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Look-Alike Works Make for an Uncommonly Provocative Show

However much the paintings might look like Ober's, Bailey isn't using that look to the same ends that Ober, or an Ober forger, would. Imitation may often be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case it's hard to imagine that a cerebral artist such as Bailey would like Ober's work enough to want to truly claim it as her own. Bailey's previous projects have included grabbing photographic faces off the Web, then paying craftsmen in China to do them up as oil portraits. Currently, at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center, Bailey has "curated" a show of three imaginary artists, of her own creation, one of whom exists only in the cyberworld of Second Life while another is based on Anna, Ikea's automated online assistant.

In fact, one point of the lobby show is that Bailey's own like -- or dislike -- for Ober's art is rather beside the point. "I don't know that my opinion on the work really comes into it." Rather, she's adopted someone else's manner specifically as a way to move away from the standard issues of taste and the cliches of personal identity and expression that still tend to govern art, especially in more conservative scenes such as Baltimore's. "I'm really interested in the idea of anonymity, and not having a brand -- moving from style to style. . . . I really enjoyed making these paintings, because I didn't have to bring anything personal to it."

Bailey says she could as easily have chosen some other local artist to imitate -- the fact that she didn't have much of a connection to Ober, personal or professional or aesthetic, was one reason that she chose her. Another was that Ober herself is happy to incorporate borrowed imagery into her art. So why shouldn't Bailey follow such an artistic principle to its furthest point -- to the edge-to-edge appropriation of a single artist's work? That way, Bailey says, she could concentrate on just getting the look right, using hand and eye and turning off most of her decision-making mind. "It was a pleasure to just make formal decisions."

But behind that was the knowledge -- or at least the possibility, to be investigated -- that even the most apparently neutral, mechanical action can unsettle the art world. Most artists make an object and barely feel a ripple when they go public with it. It can seem a useless act, or at least an impotent one. So, Bailey says, she asked herself a question: "Can I make a picture -- a benign object -- and really make it function socially?" Judging from the heated responses to her project, the answer's clearly yes. It's made "Christine Bailey: New Work" one of the most stimulating local shows I've seen in ages.

If nothing else, Bailey has uncovered an artistic chasm: What for some viewers is an interesting experiment out near the cutting edge can come across, to others, as "one of the most unforgivable and disgusting acts." Two works of art, a Bailey and an Ober, can look nearly the same yet count as absolutely different gestures for all the different kinds of people seeing them.

Four of the lobby pictures are on their way to being sold, but it's hard to know if they're being bought for their tasteful, Oberesque good looks or their hard-hitting Baileyan brains.

Christine Bailey: New Work is on view through Feb. 8 at 100 E. Pratt St., Baltimore. Open Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on weekends by appointment with Jordan Faye Contemporary, 443-955-1547.

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