Joe Baldwin

Painting gets most exciting when an artist relieves it of its historic burden of pretending to be a stable or consistent communicative vehicle. Joe Baldwin’s canvases have a kind of pictorial equanimity and a casual, cursory air that never obscures the sense that they are intelligent and pertinent. Within these ten works he essays realism, pattern painting, hard-edged abstraction, painterly abstraction, rectangular and shaped canvases—declaring a reserved pluralism. His oeuvre takes sustenance from its intrinsic variety, the amiable and slightly seditious “on-the-otherhand- ness” that kicks in when audiences move from one piece to the next. Baldwin employs style, technique, and subject matter the way other artists might carefully use tubes of paint then summarily discard them. And each of these aspects is somehow curiously fulfilled, respected, and imbued with a sense of engagement that evokes personality, though inevitably in a rather circuitous manner.

Many of the paintings in this exhibition were based on another painting that wasn’t on view: a 2001 image of a pyramidal house of cards (all of them aces of spades). Rendered in a cartoonish style with black lines, this image of a kind of domestic Tower of Babel pointed to the absurdity of leisure activity. Yet the work is fraught with a sense of the fragility of human endeavor, functioning as a metaphor for painting itself—an activity always balanced precariously between achievement and collapse. Baldwin recently began to replace these playing cards with slabs of ice, seeing in the latter’s physical indeterminacy and structural in-between-ness a similar vehicle for denoting the transitory. Three of the paintings here depicted ice, whether in the realistic rendition of a gloved hand holding a large vertical block (Ice Painting, 2001)—in which ice again seems a metaphor for painting, with its eerie translucency abrading light and vision—or in a nearly abstract pyramid of ice blocks made in a deep burgundy and inscribed with the spade insignia (Ice House, 2002).

The slabs’ rectilinear shape lent itself to several other abstract paintings in which the various forms, now divorced from any narrative context, filled the canvas from edge to edge. But edges can become malleable. Baldwin scalloped bits of wood from the ends of his stretchers, making the paintings slightly curvy instead of straight, so that the canvases wobble a bit, picking up the rhythms of the vertical shapes depicted within them. This slight and seemingly tangential dislocation is typical of Baldwin, an openhanded and uncontrived gesture that puts the whole medium on edge. Another work, Owl with Shadow, 2002, could also easily seem silly and slight. Its straightforward depiction of a perched owl initially appears amateurish, spatially indistinct, and summarily executed. On closer inspection, though, things become more complex. Like an artist working on tinted or colored paper, Baldwin uses the color of his pictorial ground—in this case a rich tan—to compose part of the body of his figural image. Field and body become one in a manner reminiscent of certain images by Magritte. Throughout these surprisingly attentive works, Baldwin mines the ceaselessly diverse area between what is painting and what a painting is.

James Yood