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.
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.