Sunday, January 27, 2008

Gopnik, Ober and Bailey

The WaPo's Chief Art Critic has an interesting angle on the debate caused by a Baltimore exhibition by an artist copying the distinctive style of Baltimore artist Cara Ober (Disclaimer: I have never met Cara Ober, nor do I own any of her works, but I have been to Baltimore).

This is one of Gopnik's most successful articles to date, at least judging by the intense debate that it caused at dinner with my in-laws; the sparks were flying as people took sides. He writes:

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.
The artist being copied is Cara Ober.
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.
Gopnik, of course, takes the predictable side; he writes: " 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."

That's a zinger against Ober, earned (I think) because in Gopnik's own words, she is a "rather successful female painter."

That description could be compliment, I think, maybe... Why the maybe? because in the obsessive, theory-driven art brains of talented writers, but one-sided and one focus critics like Gopnik, I think that often ideas are much more important to them that the art itself. Success with commodifiable art is not necessarily a good thing to the theory mafia (la Cosa Teorista).

And thus, often it's a negative thing to be successful in that weird one-sided art upper world. And if an artist is successful, then that's often seen by these single vision soldiers as a negative.

I think that the right mix is probably a mix of creative ideas together with some degree of artistic success; not all artists have to be just Van Goghesque victims, or Pointdexters, or commercial geniuses (although the latter really helps... money is not everything in the world, but it's damned well ahead of whatever is in second place).

Notice how Gopnik tears at Ober's success: he insinuates that her artistic output is common and it is so "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."

OK Blake, can you name three of those artists? Any country will do. I'm not saying that you're wrong, but as someone well-travelled, who has lived in three continents, and goes to a gazillion openings and art fairs, I'm wrecking my brains trying to think or remember a single artist in the last decade or two years whose work is similar or reminds me of Ober's? I just need an example to back up such a hugely broad commonizing statement.

Words count.

But we'll give Gopnik an A+ in making a clear case that Bailey is not really trying to just "copy" Ober's work as a forger or an imitator would. It's a good point and certainly does make up for an interesting and provocative idea for an exhibition.

But then again, in the theory-only OCD brains, the need to diminish the "other side" emerges no matter how well the case has been made for the theory side. He stabs Ober's work in the heart by writing that "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."

Not needed - Blake already made a solid case as to why Bailey is doing this; this is just an attempt to diminish Ober's work. It's not malice, but just an example of being unable to co-exist with the "other side." Gopnik can't help himself - he must elevate the idea above the work, and then attempt to bury the work.

But then, this erudite Anglophile steps over the edge with his exuberance over what Bailey has clearly accomplished with her idea. He joyously writes that
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.... 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
If it is the latter, then I think that those words begin the commodification of the idea into a commercially successful object; this is slippery ground for the theory only mafia. A "made" soldier like Gopnik should know better.

Congrats to Gopnik for delivering one of the most stimulating local reviews that I've read in ages; congrats to Bailey for not only delivering an interesting show and idea, but also an apparent commercially successful one; and congrats to Ober for simply being a damned good painter and good enough to be the target of this project.

Ahh... one last thing, and someone correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall that Jordan Faye Block, Bailey's current dealer and the dealer who set up this exhibit, used to be -- used to be -- Ober's dealer as well; but I am working from memory here and it is Sunday.

I am curious if there is a dealer part in the Ober selection process? I wonder if this issue had anything to do with Bailey's choice, and this is my open question to her, which I wish I could ask her directly rather than asking here.

If her dealer suggested Ober, then the dealer deserves a "well done" as well - after all, if we're gonna pick on an artist's style, we might as well pick on one whose work has a good sales track record, uh?

This is all good for art.

OK... one more last thing: Gopnik describes Baltimore's scene as "conservative." This adjective seems to be applied to every city's art scene on the planet, and it may be the right adjective, but then again, can someone send me an example of where a critic or writer has ever described any city's art scene on this planet as "progressive" or "liberal"? I'm sure some are, but I just want to be educated as to where, and with facts to back up such a sweeping statement.

Read Gopnik's article here and read Cara Ober's blog here - it has a lot more info on this interesting issue, including a statement by Bailey. And for a different take, read the Baltimore Sun's art critic's take on the issue here and artPark's here, and Mango & Ginger here and Bethesda Art Blog here.

Update: Kriston Capps from the WCP confirms my memory that there was a dealer angle to this story.