The Real World
Authenticity Isn't The Issue in Christine Bailey's Grossly Misunderstood Epic Failure
Anytime an art exhibition makes people angry you know somebody is doing something right--but that doesn't necessarily mean it's interesting, ethical, or even good. Case in point: On Jan. 7 a series of new paintings from local artist Christine Bailey opened inside the lobby of 100 E. Pratt in a show organized by local gallerist/curator Jordan Faye Block. For the exhibit, Bailey appropriated the style of another local artist, Cara Ober--as in, Bailey painted canvases that look very, very, very much like Ober's paintings. Block used to represent Ober and currently represents Bailey. Within days of the opening, I personally received a few e-mails--from the parties involved and from people who know the parties involved--that ran through confused, angry, livid, and naive. E-mail "reply-all" accusations ensued, as did speculations of personal maliciousness for personal gain. And on Jan. 21, Block sent out an e-mail offering Bailey's conceptual framework-qua-clarification for the show, a copy of which now hangs in the 100 E. Pratt lobby.
Specifically, Bailey cites a Sept. 24, 2007, New Yorker article by James Surowiecki about the business of knockoffs in the fashion world. New Work is Bailey's attempts to make "designer replicas" of Ober's work--or, as Bailey poorly explained in an e-mail to Ober that The Sun quoted in a myopic Jan. 25 article titled "Downtown exhibit is raising questions about artistic plagiarism," Bailey wondered: "Could I be the Old Navy to Cara Ober's The Gap?"
The answer is yes and no. New Work is full of paintings that do very much look like Ober's work. Against muted pastel-y backgrounds Bailey suspends a collage of imagery and text in hot but soft colors. It's a dreamlike vocabulary that very acutely mimics paintings by Ober (visit www.caraober.com for a visual comparison), although Bailey claims that none of the pieces is a stroke-for-stroke, smudge-for-smudge duplicate of any of Ober's paintings.
Not that it matters much: Anybody familiar with Ober's works can look at Bailey's New Work and see whom Bailey is ripping off. The problem is just how many people are going to be able to do that: It's one thing to want to be the Old Navy to somebody's Gap, but first you have to be sure the person you're ripping off has the sort of market recognition for such appropriation to have any sort of meaningful resonance.
Bailey's outright copying of a local artist in her peer group is the first of many undercooked choices that makes New Work a brilliant idea with atrocious execution. For one, the economy of knockoffs works because they're more affordable versions of luxury goods. And, as anybody who has ever wandered around Canal Street near Broadway in New York knows, knockoff vendors don't just stock their carts with Burberry bags. They also carry Fendi, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and so on. If Bailey really wanted to explore this fashion model, she wouldn't have only copied Ober's works. She would have copied Tony Shore's velvet revolution, René Treviño's manly portraits, Jeffrey Kent's superheroes, Don Cook's two-tone cityscapes, Kate McKinnon's high-glazed abstractions, etc.--a buyer's market of local artists who have some image recognition. And she would have priced them at the lowballing prices of the knockoff artist, not in the $250 to $1,250 range. So not only is Bailey being a fraud here--she's not a very good one at that.
The problem with New Work is not that Bailey went too far--it's that she doesn't go far enough. New Work is obviously an experiment in Bailey's own oeuvre of exploring identity's mutability, and any artist too afraid to fail epically needs to stay in the studio until she finds her own spine. Because beneath Bailey's clumsily worded "explanation" of the show and the direct allusion to Surowiecki's article sits an interesting idea kernel about value and product in the art world. And it's an idea that an art community such as Baltimore's, which continues to grow despite lacking a serious injection of local capital from local collectors and dealers, should be considering.
If executed with more aggression, New Work could have been a direct assault on wondering what people value when they buy art products--from handbags to watches to paintings. It's a prescient issue to consider right now because if you chat with artists and gallerists and art gadflies in Baltimore--like many midsized cities with thriving art communities but a less healthy gallery community--what always comes up as to what's needed to push the city up to the proverbial next level is money. There needs to be a next generation of benefactors who support the arts community, from buying local works to significantly contributing to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as the current generation passes on. And what and how the city and its artistic communities go about pursuing that influx of funding can and will shape Baltimore arts for years to come.
Obviously, New Work didn't achieve that level of discussion, but don't pillory the messenger. Discussions of "authenticity" only address part of the issues here, and rewarding discussion of those issues can only be achieved when reactions aren't so reactionary. So, no, Bailey's New Work is only modestly interesting, rather unethical, and in the end not very good. But if artists are going to worry about playing fair and being nice and let market forces dictate responses to local art, then everybody involved might as well just go on ahead and become accountants.
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