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Warping the Power of Icons 

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Joe Baldwin Retrospective

at Law Office, through December 10

By Fred Camper

Joe Baldwin's 12 witty, paradoxical paintings at Law Office, made over the last five years, constitute the strongest debut show I've seen this year. But had I seen one of these paintings on its own, I don't think I would have felt the same enthusiasm. Deceptively simple, they usually reveal little painterly skill (there are two exceptions), and blankness and emptiness are major themes. Yet the hooded head in The Domain of the Algorithm--not the only time Baldwin has used this image--is not so much a psychological self-portrait illustrating self-concealment as it is a challenge to the authority of imagery in our culture.

Repeating geometrical patterns have a long history in modernist paintings, with very different meanings in works by Mondrian and Frank Stella, for example. But both artists comment on the geometrical form of the canvas itself, and by extension on the rectilinear room in which it's displayed and the geometry underlying Renaissance perspective. Such works produce the feeling that emptiness itself is regular, predictable, rational--one reason why Baldwin's untitled painting formed of a "grid of lozenges" is disturbing. Black lines on white make repeated triangles, but the grid is all twisted out of shape: some triangles are twice the size of others. It's as if the fabric of space itself had been distorted. (Baldwin told me of a more personal connection: his father, Jonathan Baldwin, painted geometrical abstractions when Joe was little, among them "perfectly regular lozenges.")

Spirit of England is in a way even more warped. A grid of orange lines floats in front of the British flag, which is rotated 90 degrees and painted in shades of pale blue green. The orange grid is regular at the top and sides but broken and twisted at the center and bottom: Baldwin copied a photograph he took of grids painted on two sheets of fabric, one wrapped over a hat dummy and the other laid out flat behind it. As a result the breaks in the finished painting's grid suggest a head and shoulders. Here the flag and the grid imply authority--the authority of national symbols, geometrical abstraction, traditional perspective, and rectangular paintings themselves--while the figure interjects a humanizing element into these icons of perfection. Baldwin is quite conscious of this opposition; as he told me, "High modernism does something that really transcends the experience of being a flawed person. In some of my paintings there is this idea of reintroducing that, to try to prove you can have this flawed, screwed-up personality or nervous system and still have the work transcend itself." Though he says there was no special reason for choosing the British flag, it is the flag of the nation that spawned our own and a traditional symbol of empire.

Unquestioning allegiance to any symbol or form is also rejected in Caveland, which consists of nine roughly drawn outlines of the continental United States connected by simple lines in a three-by-three array. No representation is "correctly" oriented; instead we see each flipped left to right, rotated 90 degrees, or upside down. There's unarguably something loaded about the outline of a U.S. map, and Baldwin expresses an interest in "the vacant, iconic image" in a 1997 statement, "Mockery as Grief." By outlining our country roughly and presenting it in every orientation but the "normal" one, Baldwin subverts the knee-jerk patriotism such an image can represent.

But as the exhibit as a whole establishes, Baldwin argues less against specific symbols than he does against the very idea of icons. As he says in "Mockery as Grief," he aims for "images which are always on the line between one thing and another." The bizarre presentation of nine outlines in Caveland may be a critique of consumerism--of the way store displays use symbols to sell commodities. But the work is also an odd study of the empty space between and within the outlines--of concealment and blankness, another version of the covered face in The Domain of the Algorithm.

Mother is loaded with meaning. In a statement about it, Baldwin refers to Freud's writing on fetishism, and he told me that he started Mother at a point in the upper center where "the Virgin Mary's eyes would be in an icon or where the clitoris would be in a vulva." In this abstract work, Baldwin gave himself the task of painting 1,000 rectangles, all taller than they are wide, on a canvas that, like his others, is oriented vertically. Because he intentionally did not plan their placement, he made some rectangles smaller when he thought he wouldn't have enough room and others larger when he thought he'd have too much. The result is yet another grid that's distorted--and in a way humanized. The colors are peaches and pinks, giving the piece a distinctly fleshy tone and supporting Baldwin's dual references to Mary and a vulva, arguably opposed suggestions that might destroy any univocal reading. But what's most interesting about the painting is its ambiguous space: it seems at once to thrust outward and collapse in on itself. It can certainly be seen as a fleshy entranceway, but the relatively large, solid, and regular rectangles at its center seem to project out. Baldwin's twin themes--humanizing the grid and combining meaning and its denial--are present with a vengeance.

Born in 1968, Baldwin grew up mostly in New Mexico but also lived in Hawaii and Colorado and spent some summers in Alaska. Both his parents were artists and he made art as a child; later he played in a rock band and became interested in poetry. Among the many poets he cites as influences are T.S. Eliot and Charles Olsen, suggesting modernist roots for his often paradoxical titles. It wasn't until he was teaching English in Japan in 1992 that a survey of contemporary American art inspired him to start painting again, and he's lived in Chicago since 1994, attending the School of the Art Institute (Gaylen Gerber proved an influence) and earning an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999.

Baldwin arranged the paintings in the show himself, and Double Room and Automaton are powerfully juxtaposed. Baldwin copied the warm-toned, realistic Double Room from a photo in an architecture magazine, and the "double" in the title could be taken as referring to the room in which the painting is hung. But rather than directly echo the gallery space, the painting's background fireplace and foreground desk are set at angles to each other--and to the picture plane, a reflection of the rectilinear gallery, so that the two spaces seem to collide.

For the abstract Automaton, Baldwin poured a pint of black paint over the top of a canvas, then laid it flat just before the drips would have reached the bottom edge. Aggressively stark and uninviting, it nevertheless reveals the fundamental fluidity of paint. Baldwin's juxtaposition of it with Double Room reminded me of the way Gerhard Richter paints in multiple modes: sometimes abstractions, color grids, and copies of photographs will be hung in the same show, causing the viewer to question the whole nature of representation in painting. (Indeed, Baldwin says that at one point Richter, along with David Salle, "got to be too much of an influence.") What happens here is that the viewer begins to see the two paintings as related, realizing that even the refined realism of Double Room involves some degree of chance and dripping, if only on a microscopic level: we understand that all art is an illusion subject to random processes, spun by fallible hands over the chaotic void that is our universe.

The self-portrait C. Joe B. both reflects on the idea of painting as a form of self-portraiture and denies painting's revelatory or transcendent power. The title comes from the fact that Baldwin's first name is Cornet, though it's also a pun: "See Joe B." Baldwin stands with his back to us touching his mirror image, though there is no mirror visible. Using unprimed canvas, Baldwin intended to compare the canvas to a mirror, but he also reminds us that all imagery is contingent: the lighting makes the "reflection" of his hand very dark, and we see only fragments of his face because he has his back to us. The painting is as much about the failure of canvas to depict as it is about canvas as mirror, reminding me of film director Douglas Sirk's remark that if one tries to grasp happiness, one will touch only a surface of glass--an idea terrifyingly literalized in the final image of his A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

In another 1997 statement Baldwin wrote, "I love the idea of making a real, concrete, thing which is inherently false." In our secular age, we realize that no flag, no icon, no system of representation has a monopoly on truth--and Baldwin's images are both peculiarly suggestive and subversive, undercutting icons' power. But this artist is no smirking postmodernist; rather he's a cool logician who loves the way paradoxes confound our answers to the ancient question "What is truth?"

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