The Great Appropriation

The Great Appropriation

Donald Baechler’s easy, authentic recombinations

Why isn’t Donald Baechler a bigger critical hero in the art world? What is it about his particular intersection of cultural investigation, studio practice, and aesthetics that eludes those who might invest some rigor into the position and production of this artist? It’s hard to know why, but the current exhibition at Cheim & Read offers enough material to convince those more qualified than this author to go about the business of mining the intelligence and currency of this work.

Often the product is misunderstood, merely reduced to its 1980s origins and methods of appropriation. However, Baechler has, through his art, spent years addressing the complexity of power and pleasure inherent in the ownership of imagery. Then as now, the works at Cheim & Read are perhaps some of the most intimate and non-academic investigations of authenticity, style, and culture’s dictates regarding the marriage of the two.

The materiality of the work was likely troublesome during the 1990s, when cool was the temperature appropriate to cultural investigations. Baechler has an incredible gift for materials and composition. And these two attributes make the work absolutely warm and luscious—evidence of a searingly acute formalist eye. This condition tied to the fact that the drawings might have been lifted from—or copied from—convicts, jailbait, and the insane has always troubled the virtuous among us. Not more perhaps than the fact that these gorgeous works are made again and again in factory-like repetition, and finally, that they are likely very easy to live with and therefore overtly salable. Nan Goldin offered to be “Our Mirror;” Donald Baechler is.

There’s hope for solid critical reception yet. Stolen imagery is ubiquitous; youngsters don’t even grasp the bristle of “Appropriation” once so keenly felt. And the net result is that the art world has caught up to Baechler’s pre-Web ease with this state, and to his faith in compelling physical, formal compositions.

It’s all deceptively simple. His signature central image, set onto a collaged ground in paintings like “Perils of Imprecision” (2005) and “Safe Haven”(2006), are good proof of this, as well as the artists wit for image-word and spatial play. But it’s the stripped-down “Crowd” and “Skull” paintings that really demonstrate Baechler’s ability to pack variations of like objects together in a confined space, eliciting both visual and verbal memory of “the between” that has been the fancy of so many academics all these years. The beauty is that Baechler doesn’t labor the point. The labor invested in the work—and it is real and palpable—is fully sensual. And for the willing, so is the reception—a totally integrated pleasure of seeing, thinking, feeling. That there are many more Baechler paintings like it out in the world is where the bite resides.

This seems quite current and quite familiar. The artist, his studio practice, demeanor, and the ubiquity of his work call up a hard working, jovial, Warhol. It’s a logical connection. But Baechler takes that format of cultural production and builds back into it a lushness, tactility, and intelligent humor that the simple pursuit of “smart” or “cool” can never attain.