10/20/04-Joe Baldwin Interlink Visiting Artist

Abby Glogower

Some artists will find a stylistic niche and rework it obsessively rarely venturing outside a proven formula. The opposite is true of Joe Baldwin whose young career has already covered an astonishing breadth of media and concepts. Baldwin who lives and works in Chicago, is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA, 1997) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (MFA, 1999). On Wed. October 20th he returned to the Art Institute as an Interlink Visiting Artist Program Speaker.

Welcoming the audience to his "first slide lecture ever" the soft-spoken Baldwin walked the audience through his development as an artist. While studying in Japan in his early twenties, Baldwin was moved by an exhibit he saw entitled " The Last 30 Years of American Art," particularly John Baldessari's triptychs comprised of dissonant stock photos. Realizing "the power of the triptych came from the form and I was free to experiment with the content," Baldwin began using his cache of passport and visa photos to construct his own iconic collages. "Fertility Cult" features a row of identical men in suits over whom a drawing of a Black Widow spider hovers ominously. The imagery of corruption and devouring serves as an ode "to the amorality of economics."

The theme of the figure with a cloaked head emerged early in Baldwin's work. While it initially appealed to him for its creepiness, and evocation of prisoners and execution, it eventually grew into a more theory-based fascination. "I love secrets and the cloaked head, to me, relates to the interplay of signifier and signified. The shrouded head presents what is at once identifiable and hidden or unknowable". Finding photography "too stiff to manipulate," Baldwin returned to painting, to explore these metaphysical relationships between medium and content. This mystical duality is illustrated with the coronation of a cloaked head in "The Domain of Algorithm" (1995).

For the "final iteration" of the cloaked head theme Baldwin turned to photography again (a vacillation that occurs throughout his work) for a multi-media painting entitled "Spirit of England." Here Baldwin painted sheets with grids and draped one over a dummy head. The photograph of the ghostly head, merely implied through the bending of the overlapping photographed and painted grids, is set against a "Pseudo-Jack" background: the British flag done entirely in shades of turquoise.

Baldwin openly rejects ideologies when it comes to his art making. "none of this modern or post-modern, right or left made sense to me. I just wanted to be free". It is this freedom that prompts him to work in so many styles. "Caveland", a painting of continental outlines skewered on grid lines, is part of a series reflecting "the deep mistrust my generation feels about the country." Other varied works include: "See Joe B", a hyper realist self-portrait that turns the canvas into a mirror. "Flower Cult", an exploration of imagined foreign rituals in Japanese block print style outlines, and "Room on Fire", an eerily silent interior in which a curtain has just ignited. In a bit of visual punning, the painting on the wall of this room is a replica of a real painting he did of his own bedroom. His oeuvre also includes abstract color compositions and pen and ink drawings.

Responding to a comment from a friend that his works " always fall apart", Baldwin did a series of paintings and photographs addressing entropy, precariousness and collapse. The painting "Death House" done in just black and white portrays an undulating, rickety card house built entirely from Aces of Spades. To capture a different mode of disintegration, Baldwin envisioned the sequel to this work as a card house sculpted in ice. When this proved too difficult he returned to his theory driven thought process. What emerged was a set of photographs in which a gloved hand handles slabs of ice at various stages of disappearance against a satin backdrop. Forever the philosopher, Baldwin likened the composition of the photograph- the ice in front of a backdrop in front of fake wall, in front of a real wall-to the layering of paint. Showing slides from his exhibition at Gallery 2, Baldwin says that 'taken all together, I tend to think of these paintings as an installation."

During the question and answer session Baldwin spoke a little about his process, an admittedly "chaotic working method". While he prefers to begin a painting with a plan in mind, he leaves room for flexibility. "Sometimes it's laborious in the Grand-master style, taking up to a year, and sometimes it goes quickly in just a few days.\" Responding to a comment that his work appears incredibly reminiscent of Magritte's, Baldwin laughed. "Not as important as you might think.\" Although a fan of Magritte's style, he added: "I hope my work doesn't make anyone just want to go out and look at Magritte instead.\"

Baldwin's success derives from his fine craft as a painter but also the depth of sensitivity with which he approaches his media. His insightful manipulations of and meditations upon his chosen modes of expression combine to create a rich and diverse body of work. Says SAIC professor of art history theory and criticism, James Yood, "Baldwin mines the ceaselessly diverse area between what is painting and what a painting is."

Baldwin is represented by the Monique Meloche gallery. Images of his work are available online at the gallery website.