Joa Baldinger "Water Drops On Burning Rocks"

Tanja Grunert Gallery

poster for Joa Baldinger "Water Drops On Burning Rocks"

This event has ended.

Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc. announces that it is working with Joa Baldinger for her first exhibition with the gallery in 2013.

A Lived-in Utopia:
The Paintings of Joa Baldinger

By Carter Ratcliff

Joa Baldinger gives us an art of clarity. This isn’t obvious at first, because what she likes to be clearest about is the way things connect and underplay their differences. Though each element of an image is distinctly what it is, these details seem to be interested less in their individuality than in the roles they play in the pictorial ensemble. in Dina’s Shopping Day, for instance, walls are vertical and the floor is horizontal—Baldinger gives us no reason to doubt this for an instant—yet her touch shifts the emphasis from the structure of a place to the mood of an occasion. Walls, floor, objects, figures, light, color, and texture join to generate the intense calm that shopping requires, if it is to be done with the right kind of seriousness.

in the background stands a manikin. The difference between this object and the bodies that surround it is, of course, absolute. This is the difference, not between life and death, but between the living and that which was never alive and can only stand in for an animate presence. Yet Baldinger treats this manikin just as she treats Dina and the other people on view. Underplaying differences, she stresses similarities of the sort that shade off into unities. Animate or not, all the figures in this painting are at one with the moment.

Manikins, robots, automatons—quasi- and pseudo-humans of all sorts—appeared in Cubist portraiture, in the dreamy interiors of the pittura metafisica, in the cityscapes of the German Expressionists and in the dreamscapes of Surrealism. The ascendancy of abstraction chased these eerie figures away. Then, in the 1980s, their descendants came lumbering back to crown Neo-Expressionist painting with grotesque, often statuesque bodies. Even in the works of certain latter-day realists—one thinks of Philip Pearlstein—models’ bodies have the look of inanimate objects. When painters equate human flesh and its simulacra, they tend to tilt the equation in favor of the latter. Baldinger does the opposite.

Rather than treat living bodies as if they were things, she endows things with life—all things, not just manikins. The colors and textures than enliven limbs and gestures in Dina’s Shopping Day carry over to the clothes that Baldinger’s figures wear, and to the clothes that still hang on the rack. The rack itself, the hangers, the oval tables with its levitating freight of color—everything in this image is vivid, vital, immediate. These qualities can’t help pervading Baldinger’s art because they belong, first of all, to her touch. Her delight in her subjects is so intense that she has no choice but to charge them with the quick, precise, caressing energy of her brushwork.

As I’ve noted, the calm of Dina’s Shopping Day is that of highly focused concentration. Ungaro’s Studio is a scene of unforced elegance. Big House (Mies), a wide shot, shares its quietude with the close-up of Scotch on the Rocks. These are tranquil pictures. Yet each of them is as hot as Honey, because each was brought into being by the artist’s desire. True desire is involuntary, and that is why I said that Baldinger cant help imparting life to every nuance of her imagery. The red of Dina’s Nikes is not just reportage, though one is willing to believe that these shoes are, in fact, red. But that fact is incidental to the charm these ordinary objects exercise over the artist’s feelings—a charm we feel as we see our way into the lush textures of Baldinger’s rendering. These shoes, no less than her Mies van der Rohe house and her stylish interiors, are emblems of a way of life made visible by desire.

Desire alone, whatever its object, is not enough to produce art, precisely because desire is involuntary and art is willed—if not willful. Art is the product of desire endowed with the detached authority of the will. That is why art makes use of the artifice. Or art simply is artifice, and Baldinger’s lovely felicities are as deliberate in their way, as the placement of lines and angles in works of austerely modernist abstraction. A painterly painter, she gives the impression of deliberating at high speed, which is not to say that she paints in a hurry. What I’m getting at is my sense that her brush marks, when she finally makes them, have the immediacy of sudden intuitions that put her in charge of desire.

She wants us to see her paint as paint, and to see as well what the paint is doing. “It’s as if I’m the director,” she says, “and I’m casting the colors in various roles. So red plays the role of a door. Or a pair of Nikes.” With this image of painting as a drama of representation, Baldinger invites us to see her colors as themselves: pigmented materials. No less than a Minimalist, she invokes the ideal of autonomy. Yet she has revised the ideal in a startling way. in her art, a color becomes autonomous through the artifice of personification. Each hue plays the part of an actor playing a part. Thus she maintains the familiar distinction between paint-as-paint and paint as means to an image.

Traditionally, this distinction between paint and image mimicked the opposition of body and spirit. Paint was thought to be mired, like the body, in the material realm. If it is sufficiently pure, sufficiently removed from the particulars of ordinary life, an image could ascend to the realm of the spiritual, and take paint and canvas along with it. From the ideal autonomy follows the dream of material dematerialized, relieved of it’s materiality.

Baldinger’s colors claim autonomy—and they are well worth seeing for themselves, as they makes their fluid way across the surface. Nonetheless, they set up no oppositions of the kind that open a path to a zone of transcendence. Personified, her colors have personalities, attitudes. Figuratively speaking, they live their lives in the world inhabited by her objects and her people. To speak literally, this is the ordinary world we share with her paintings, which are physical objects. Of course they are, you might say. The point is worth making only because we are still half-consciously enthralled by the notion that if art could be pure enough it would somehow ascend to an aesthetic equivalent of heaven.

The hope of aesthetic heaven on earth inspired the utopia modernism of the decades between the two World Wars. Though utopian experiment ended long ago, it produced much, including the stripped down architecture of buildings still extant. As we’ve seen, Baldinger pictures one of them, the horizontal form of Big House (Mies). There’s no mistaking her admiration for austere lines and uninflected surfaces of this massive object, shaped by the hope of bringing the evolution of form to an end.

Mies wanted to give space a clarity that would take it—and us—out of time. He wanted to rescue us from history. Baldinger shows his house at the end of what is easy to imagine as a gorgeous summer day. inflected by the hour and season, this form is released from its utopian yearnings, and remade by Baldinger’s, for her art shows us a lived-in utopia. in her world, Mies’s house and Dina’s Nikes are equally real, equally desirable and, just as important, equal before the artifice of art. This artifice is crucial, for it established the deliberative distance between picture and pictured that, in its turn, established the autonomy of the artwork. And autonomy is crucial, for its freedoms make Baldinger’s world utopian.

The down-to-earth autonomy of her colors follows from the parts they play in her dramas of representation. Her autonomy follows from the part she plays, as the one who assigns her colors and other formal devices their roles and then guides them through the process that culminates in a picture. This, of course, is a roundabout way of describing what all painters do. I put it this way to emphasize what Baldinger emphasizes: her presences in her art, which is not just a matter of course (all artists are present in their work), but also the salient subject of her art.

For the things she pictures are emblems of her desire for those things and much else—desire is endless. And the way she pictures things, her deployment of artifice, shows how her will tempers her desire, so that her yearning can never be the simple kind that would engulf her, obliterate her, if it were ever fulfilled. Cultivating autonomy, she pictures not only things but also the act of picturing. Luxuriating in the possibilities for meaning, she elaborates it, teases it, and submits to its inevitable ambiguity. It is not just that red is red and, at the same, the color of a pair of running shoes. Ambiguous form is impossible to separate from ambiguous feeling.

As Baldinger says, her art puts everything “up for grabs.” As we watch, simple liking for a subject becomes obsessed adoration, which becomes irony and then sympathetic detachment and all of these at once, because why should feeling acknowledge any constraints on its intensity or its complexity? What makes Baldinger’s art utopian is not just her assertion of her freedom but her exercise of it—and pleasure she takes in that exercise, a pleasure ones senses in every trace of her touch.

Essay copyright 2002 Carter Ratcliff

This essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition at Roger Smith Gallery in 2002



from October 18, 2012 to October 27, 2012

Opening Reception on 2012-10-18 from 18:00 to 20:00


Joa Baldinger

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