Crapstract Expressions: Markus Baldegger brings rehashed style to Baltimore

City Paper

Despite its history as Baltimore’s oldest contemporary gallery, C. Grimaldis Gallery feels detached from the rest of the city’s largely DIY and artist-run communities. So it’s no surprise for the gallery to exhibit a very un-Baltimore artist, Markus Baldegger—un-Baltimore in the sense that there’s nothing remotely “weird” about his work. We’ve come to expect one of Baltimore’s few commercial galleries to reach beyond our taste for the quirky, comical, avant-garde, and/or slightly psychotic, and beyond the city’s limits—in this case, the continent’s. The Swiss artist’s recent paintings are decorator-friendly and certainly marketable (which is not necessarily a bad thing)—providing a brief and necessary though generally underwhelming escape from our own art bubble. 

Baldegger’s gestural, abstract paintings function as landscapes. His color palette evokes natural light, often using soft colors and tones that seem to be derived from “en plein air” observation. The varied, overlapping marks create atmospheric depth, establishing figure-ground relationships between textural masses. The paintings often appear scabby in texture, lifted by layers of oil, tempera, and ink.

Despite the scribbled circles covering each canvas (it’s impossible not to think of Cy Twombly’s cryptic, kid-doodle-inspired paintings), most of the work comes across as generally serene. Two small, adjacent paintings, however, seem to condense the frenetic energy that is restrained elsewhere. In an untitled painting (10 of the 14 paintings are untitled) expressive loops frame a space filled by parallel black dots, shadowed by muted blue and gray dots. Through contrast, the stretched, rising gesture of the linear loops immobilizes the measured circles, textured by layers upon layers of stenciled paint. Red streaks, stamped on the canvas as if by the artist’s forearm or his brush handle, communicate a graphic violence alongside the bullet-hole-like circles. The vertical form hangs over a horizontally brushed yellow space. The range of gesture and pattern seems somewhat excessive in such a small space and ultimately inconsequential.

The frenzied textures in the untitled neighboring piece are more digestible as they push the depth within the painting’s tight space. A thick rectangle of interwoven red, gray, black, and blue loops hovers over a cool field, splattered with a spray-painted yellow-green mist and white textural impressions. The bloody smears reappear here, dripping from the floating form. The image appears like a monolith. However, largely due to the relatively small scale of the painting, it’s difficult to become lost in any sense of monumentality, or in the limited expanse of tight, layered coils.

When this mark is applied to larger, multipaneled pieces, it abstracts while it also describes. Exhibited as the show’s centerpiece—perhaps because it’s big and red—‘Saturnia III’ is covered by red loops running over white, cloudlike blotches and sinking back in the bright red field. The pattern shifts in visibility. Even though it’s the largest piece, the composition functions in the same simple manner as in the other paintings. It lacks the immersive quality we covet in paintings of this scale.

In ‘Triptych I,’ stenciled and scrawled circles and ellipses spread outward, partially interrupted by the edges of the panels and two columns drawn on either end of the painting. The gray undertone of the center panel flows into the scribbles on the flanking yellow panels. Here, Baldegger creates a more complex composition—like Monet’s expansive ‘Water Lilies’ paintings meet Renaissance altarpieces. The color, texture, pattern, and mark are all so balanced throughout the expanse that the whole seems to deviate from nature,  like an idealized vision of nature that it’s almost impossible to access.

While all of the paintings are composed of layered and varied applications of paint and ink, there is little complementary interaction between them. Generally, the elements tend to behave independently of one another, but mark and pattern function differently in the two strongest pieces. Between the edges of soft, opaque gray and beige circles covering one canvas, tight red rings cluster toward the center of the canvas, created the buzzing effect of a lunar eclipse. The main action occurs in the background and animates the foreground. In a small untitled piece, scrawled red lines almost mimic Pollockian strings of poured paint, but sit stiffly in the more energetic net of multicolor loops.

Baldegger’s work dangles over what justifiably annoyed New York critics Walter Robinson and Jerry Saltz have started referring to as “zombie formalism” or “crapstraction,” the elemental kind of abstraction that reiterates aesthetics which history has moved away from, but are nonetheless reappearing in galleries because they are easy to understand, even reductive, and therefore marketable. Like Baldegger’s paintings, this work can be alluring, visually interesting, or even beautiful, but lacking significant novelty or commentary, which are generally considered the most important assets of contemporary art. Historically celebrated abstraction is reduced to decoration. While art would surely benefit from an escape from this postmodernist rut, there’s nothing truly criminal about revisiting old concepts, when breaking new ground seems increasingly difficult. But no matter how difficult it is, artists can’t dodge their responsibility to make art that is worth not just “investing in” but actually seeing. 

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