Guy Baldwin – 1998
THE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
GUY BALDWIN | February 27 – May 24, 1998
Not all things that rise up out of the depths of deep lake waters are dark. Nor are all things that emerge from the imagination of the mind. Witness, for example, the invention of Guy Baldwin’s mind, in which twenty-one brightly colored and motorized fish emerge from some unknown deep waters and school in the Olson Gallery’s center, extending from there out over the balcony and down into the open space below. Baldwin has merged the sport of fishing and the art of the imagination to reveal the power of art to transform the ordinary spaces of daily life into rich play, into the whimsical, and into the joyful insights that come only with wise humor.
With this installation of kinetic sculpture, we have suddenly become submerged underwater. The balcony floor of the gallery has become some kind of off-shore shelf dropping swiftly to the depths of the loggia below. One can stand amidst the fish at the railing and watch one’s classmates or colleagues walk the atrium beneath us like strange two-legged bottom feeders making their way along the slate gray lake floor. And out the windows – through which we now look up and out as if we ourselves are below – one scans Lake Valentine’s receding surface in vigilant search of fishermen. If this winter were the usual Minnesota cold, there might even be colorful ice shanties out there with fishermen dropping decoys our way as we lurk rhythmically below the watery ice amongst these colorful fish-decoy-toy-cum-Baldwinian creatures who silently and staringly float all around us.
This school of Baldwinian fish appears to be some kind of rainbow-bass-striped-tailed-piranha with unusually gentle dispositions. But as the lush prints on the wall tell us, we are also in the company of other rare species: the Michigan Money Fish, the Smalleye Pike, the Norwegian Knot Fish, the English Tea Trout or the Mississippi Sand Cat, to name a few. Equally exotic are the fisherman’s specialized lures – more Baldwinian inventions of mythical engineering prowess – required to catch them. Among such names as the Hoolah Moolah, the Hot Bomber, the Tangy Taster, the Initiator, and the Sand Streaker, lurks my personal favorite, the Gordian Backlash. This lure is meant to catch the Norwegian Knot Fish, which has the capacity to untie knots in order to liberate itself. Therefore its downfall is the Gordian Backlash lure, which is tied with knots of such cunning complexity that it resembles something tied by an intoxicated Nordic monk with a master’s degree in Celtic art, attempting to solve a medieval theological conundrum. Most of us have had states of mind that feel the way this knot looks, and have learned that it is only humor – the kind employed by Baldwin – which liberates.
As these twenty-one Baldwinians swim in place, pulsing their tail fins in rhythm to the tiny crank-arms driven by low r.p.m., low wattage Axeman Specials, their convex fish-lens eyes with mirrored surfaces stare, wide and unblinking, back at us while we reflect upon ourselves in them, our image curved and distorted until we appear the way fish probably see us standing on the banks tying our lures. The quiet whirring of the Axeman Specials and the discreetly mechanical movement of the fish’s tails might momentarily bewilder the viewer: is this really a school of unusual fish or is it a cadre of those ingenious mechanical lures illustrated on the walls? Given that, as viewers walking among them, are we fish and these the decoys designed to lure us out of our daily dullness and into the redemption of imagination and humor? Into play?
In the Fourth Century, some monks described their life of meditation as “holy play.” And in his Sand Country Almanac, the great environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote of the necessity for leisure, by which he meant partaking in some activity that “must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant.” For only then will we have entered into “a defiance of the urgency of the contemporary,” or have contributed to the “assertion of more permanent values than the momentary eddies of social necessity forced upon us.” Leopold insists that only when we have begun “making something useless, or making the tools to make it with, and then using it to accomplish some needless thing,” will we have untied society’s Gordian knots and liberated ourselves. Only then will we have angled ourselves back to “creation’s denial of the ‘pecking-order’ that burdens a gregarious universe, and of which the majority of mankind is still a part.”
This is the wisdom of Baldwin’s hilarity. In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean speaks through his narrator who has just witnessed his younger brother scuttled down dangerous white water rapids while fly fishing, only to emerge intact and triumphant with a giant rainbow trout still on the line: “My brother stood before us, not on the banks of the Big Blackfoot River, but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. But I knew just as surely that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.” In his own fashion, Guy Baldwin has himself flowed down the river meeting fishing and art and nature’s laws; and he also has offered us that momentary suspension of those laws through the imagination and the free flowing play of the artist. Indeed, his power to transform this gallery space into some other world is itself a momentary suspension and defiance of that which imposes upon our joy.
Here one is lost in fish-as-art and art-as-fishing; and when one encounters this kind of abandoned, disinterested love (in the old notion of that phrase), one is freed in that moment, even though that moment cannot last. For the artist, play is high and serious work requiring that one not take oneself too highly or too seriously. In Baldwin’s case, humor, as is so wonderfully evident in this exhibition, disarms our urgencies. This work reminds us that despite the speeding rush of the world, somewhere there still exists quiet and rhythmic movement, elegant suspension hovering in wide watery spaces above our heads and also below, in our interiors.
Wayne L. Roosa