Saturday, 22 July 2017

The In(S)ignificant Detail: The Paintings of Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s paintings present the viewer with motifs drawn of quotidian objects – chairs, tables, shelves, a single clipboard, a cupboard, a white shirt, a TV screen – motifs that, in themselves and in painted form, provide an appearance of the familiar, or at least of the recognisable in a nominal sense. However, in the presence of that which is recognised, recognisability tends, more often than not, to dissolve a work in favour of mere association. Yet, Baker’s paintings remain notably in attendance. By this I mean to suggest that behind the concession to pictorial realism (the sheen of a tubular steel frame, the grain of a wooden surface, the effect of gravity on hanging wires etc.), sits a drawn arrangement that, in the deliberation of its placement, attests to a distinct and consistent sensibility. 

This sensibility is most evident not in the choice of subject matter per se, but in its treatment—treatment that, at its best, strips the seen subject of all but its most telling properties in the service of a precisely ordered arrangement of forms, colours and tones. Many of the more recent works are small – under 30 cm in any direction (with the older works generally two to three times larger) – which assists in drawing attention to what Robert Frost thought of as the (in)significant detail (consider the distinct hue of a shirt collar or the irregular reflection on a metal surface, the disparity of size and peculiarity of shape when distance collapses through overlapping and unusual spatial alignments). Still, Baker is no slave to the lens – though photography clearly provides a starting point – rather, he is a careful selector of that which might best comprise a distinct and painted resolution. These works are not copies, but sit as reconstitutions.

But reconstitutions of what? Outside of common social narratives (e.g., this chair was one sat on by? Or, this clipboard was used for?), Baker’s works rarely call attention, in any obvious manner, to that which is not present, such as: metaphysical conjectures, flights of fancy, or indeed to any form of mystical possibility. Yet, to Baker, “these objects bear witness to sensuous activity, be it remembered, lived, forgotten, or mythologised.” This tells of a desire – though I remain wary of overplaying this – to situate these objects in a human space and to have them understood, at least in part, in tandem with the spaces they might in fact occupy within lives. And by occupy, I mean to suggest inhabited both actually and psychologically. Additionally, Baker acknowledges a degree of comparison – in content if not in form – between his practice and that of Annette Messager – who, in Word for Word: Text, Writings and Interviews, stresses that the artist is not a creator per se, but rather a manipulator or pointer out of things already known.

What is certain is that this is painting with a strong impulse to document what has been seen and related to—as recalled experience, photograph, drawing, then finally – over a protracted period of time – as painting. Part of Baker’s skill – particularly visible in works of the past few years – lies in knowing what to withhold in order to avoid a cheap effect or an easy resolution. This avoidance comes in two parts: firstly, in editing photographic material for use, and, secondly, in fine-tuning painted surfaces through delicate glazing and reworking. The result of this labour is not that the end result is overly academic, stripped of interest, or made deliberately obscure in accordance with an over-determined aesthetic. Merely, that Baker’s realism goes so far and, in an effort to maintain the integrity and presence of the painted object, goes no further. And of the human relations Baker alludes to? They remain withheld in perpetuity, as seems most fitting. 

Of his influences: there is a clear indebtedness to modernism and, in particular, to dominant architectural and design tendencies: from the Bauhaus of the early 1920s to the Brutalism of the 1950s through to the 1970s. This is most apparent in an emphasis on clean lines, orderly composition, the employment of an uncompromising palette – muted colours offset with grey, black and white – and a preference for minimal, non-adorned objects. There is a debt, also, to Edward Hopper, and to Luc Tuymans: the former discernible in the loaded, somewhat stagey atmosphere of the earlier works, and the latter in his employment of tints, and in a recent tendency to leave the brush mark open (for it not merely to describe) in the service of accessing techniques and processes. In a sense, the time involved in the making of these works – months at least – provides an intriguing counterpoint to Baker’s unwavering preference for depicting objects in stasis.

These objects he sees as, “dislocated from their conventional domestic settings”, which could be seen to provide a necessary critical distance from the material to hand, and even act to disavow otherwise sentimental yearnings for the familiar and the homely—the ‘once was’ appears displaced by the ‘might have been’ and the ‘probably wasn’t’. Yet this is as far as such projections go. Aspirational attachments, perhaps-accurate recollections and spatial juxtapositions provide a framework for a rich and progressively innovative practice. From here, Baker permits himself a freedom to explore what it is that painting does. And within this practice painting does rather a lot. In particular, it structures, reveals, limits and exceeds in respect of the vernacular of contemporary forms of pictorial realism.

To conclude: a careful consideration of Baker’s works over a period of several years points to a strengthening of clearly locatable concerns – some of which I have attempted to describe and account for here – and to a gradual distancing from what, within a domestic and urban setting, might be considered an approximation of the picturesque, if in a rather austere form. Pondering what lies ahead, I feel obliged to speculate as to whether Baker will continue to look for various and meaningful objects to paint or, if he chooses, revisit his growing arsenal of increasingly singular and centred motifs, so as to fine-tune, reorder and, in so doing, see yet more? Within such speculation lies not only a question of the direction and distinction of one painter’s creative journey and choices, but also a bigger question as to painting’s propensity to comment on an external world, or else rest replete within the borders of its own mode of being.

Tom Palin, 2017

A Room of One's Own (Exhibition Review)

This small, unexpectedly powerful exhibition of works (mostly paintings from the Williamson’s collection) draws its title from an essay by Virginia Woolf. All works have been purchased or donated between 1913 and 2015. Initially, a large painting by Richard Young startled me. Large Interior – a composite oil painting comprising four panels that together make an approximate square – glowed in a Sickertesque manner. Subdued pinks and a dirty yellow-green came first, then the recognition of a chair set back in the top left and an old fireplace surrounded by a host of chaotically placed books and other objects piled towards the corner of a cluttered room.

After a while I noticed a painting within a painting: sitting atop of the fireplace and barely distinguishable from the surrounding walls. The mood is dusty, poignant in an underplayed way, but nevertheless loaded with a sense of what has been. It reminded me of lines from a poem, The New House, by Edward Thomas.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learned how the wind would sound
After these things should be

Young’s ability to destabilise a composition in a controlled manner through subtle angular juxtapositions and intersections, combined with an enjoyment of muted colour and a truncated tonal range, draw heavily from the lessons of Sickert. And yet, irrespective of origin or influence, the painting broods. Look hard and there is an image of a face, presumably a photograph of a loved one. Nearby, scrawled on a piece of sheet music is the word 'Requium.

Oddly, but perhaps through necessity (presumably the work is too large to move), Thomas Sydney Cooper’s monumental Waterloo, in the region of 13 x 10 feet (though this is probably an underestimate) retains centre stage in an exhibition of 20 intimate interiors. Included, are two paintings by Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister): Interior with Duncan Grant and Interior with a House Maid. Both carry with them a pronounced feel for the air that circulates, or else stagnates, within a room. More than frozen moments, these paintings seem more about observance—the act of seeing and subsequently reconstructing the moment. With this comes an air of privilege, certainly in terms of the relative comfort of the settings, but more so in respect of the position of the absent watcher/painter permitted to take all of this in.

Other highlights from the exhibition include the deceptively simple Interior by Ethel Martin Frimston, which in spite of its subject matter (window, table, flowers, mirror) retains a considerable freshness, perhaps to do with the fluidity of her technique and the skill with which paint has been applied in the service of a well-composed picture. Next to this, Thomas Burke’s From My Study Window depicts a well-dressed woman looking through a large, heavily framed window towards the buildings opposite. It is rather eerie and to somewhat reminiscent of Freud’s early work, Interior at Paddington, painted a decade later. Though the work seems technically a little awkward – strange cropping and a rather dry use of paint – it nevertheless commands attention. The more I looked the more I liked. There is a familiarity with many of these works, which is no doubt central to the concept of the exhibition, and to its success.

William Turner’s The Night Before the Cup Tie shows a middle aged to elderly woman ironing a football kit in a rather humble kitchen sink-like setting. A sense of care, and of an absorption in a meaningful task, permeates the work. Philip Wilson Steer’s School Girl Standing by a Door is incredibly present. Sharp, crisp and fluid, in spite of its gloom, there are strong reminders of the artist’s debt to Manet and Whistler. Of the more recent contributions, Anniversary by David Pugh Evans, An Empty Room and an Old Belief by Peter Bibby and Hallway by Mavis Blackburn are particularly notable, attesting in various ways to a room’s capacity to both reflect and determine the nature of that which takes place within its confines.

In all, this is impressive display of intimate, quotidian spaces. Sickert’s influence looms large, as indeed it did over British painting for two thirds of the twentieth century, until Hockney and company set out to cheer it up. Still, for those willing to lend this grouping of quiet works their time,and to seek out something less immediate, there are surprising rewards to be found.
The exhibition runs until November 20th.

Tom Palin, 2016

The Tent (Spotlight Exhibition, Dean Clough)

The Tent resides within a series of small-scale oil paintings on wood that have occupied me for the past five years. Completed in 2013, it formed part of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015, where it hung in the landscape room in Burlington House, curated by Jock McFadyen. For this and a companion piece, The Hill, I was the recipient of a British Institution Award. The Tent is currently on loan to Dean Clough, from a private collection.The paintings in this series are almost all landscapes and share a concern for a singular location or place, at once familiar or commonplace. The image-aspect of a painting resides within the surface, and its accessibility – outward facing, static and open – acts as the way in. Only then, when an acquaintance has been made can the painting begin its work.

This work can be seen as a drawing together and disclosure of painterly possibilities, residual references and processes of making: as duration, intimation and desire. For it is in being a painting that a painting keeps itself busy, and in being The Tent, such busyness is necessarily circumscribed. The painting is small, rough, shiny and framed; its image of tent and cloud ‘fashioned from’ not ‘inscribed upon’ its surface, fusing form and content together. I consider the processes of painting to be a journey where both origin and destination are undetermined in advance of an engagement in the act of making.

I draw from memory, allowing the material, manual aspects of the work to inaugur, extend and fashion the stuff of paint into a formal arrangement…into a representation. This arrangement of brush marks, of colour and tone, takes up where memory falters or fabricates, continuing the journey as the process evolves. At points in time the relationship between leader and follower – between memory and the possibilities set in motion by the image – reverses, leaving me in doubt as to the identity of the author of the final arrangement.

The memory concerned is both voluntary and involuntary, with conscious and unconscious drivers. The result, however, is not arbitrary, though the processes whereby a painting becomes determined and complete remain mysterious, reassuring me of painting’s propensity for seemingly continual regeneration. To misquote Mark Twain…rumours of painting’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and for a long time. Its disposition to infinite extension combined with a rootedness in the past serve to situate it firmly in a perpetual present.

With The Tent I knew only that there was a clear intent to work within the confines of the landscape genre, in oils, on oak, and to a small scale. I’d set out my stall in a new studio in Barkston House, Leeds, with an optimism that accompanies such beginnings. The studio was a dwelling, carefully furnished and ready to provide the conditions of practice: a clearing within which works could emerge.

I cannot be sure if the idea of a tent preceded its arrival as motif on the surface of the wooden panel by a significant distance, but it likely circled among other possibilities in future arrangements, taking physical form, when its turn came, as a result of a long process of trial and error. Lots had been tried and lots painted out, as the surface built gradually, heaving and rippling, containing and encasing all that the painting had been.

When eventually the tent appeared, silhouetted in the bottom right side of the painting on top of the light horizontal section behind it, I knew that I had the rest of the work within my reach. From then the painting appeared to determine itself, as I layered the dark area, adding to the central lightness to allow what became a loud cloud to poke through, sit on top of, and blend into, the surrounding sky.       

When camping, the sky is huge. In a tent you feel close to the ground, so it seemed right to have the tent’s ground sheet level with the bottom of the painting. I love the expansiveness of Vincent Van Gogh’s wonderfully inventive Starry Night, 1889, and the singularity of the moment in Samuel Palmer’s magical The Bright Cloud, 1834. I have borrowed from both, with the latter directly responsible for the cloud, though manifestly less bright in my work.

I’d recently camped in Snowdonia, which almost certainly brought the motif of the tent to the fore, making it part of my thinking and experience. Yet the painting is a composite of elements, a moment in a story: an event. An illuminated windbreak describes the tent’s insides, and two bodies, together clinging. The sky, as physical, material presence, extends to the front of the painting on the right of the tent and to a mound of earthy greyness on the left. An indeterminate dark lengthens vertically above the cloud, which hangs and waits.

Tom Palin, 2015

Exhibition in a Box Proposal

Exhibition in a Box is a collaborative project centred on the notion of travel, difference and the testing of artistic and cultural boundaries. The limitation of form and space necessitated by the physical restrictions of the specially designed box permit a rethinking of the relationship between form and content. Participating artists are required to embrace processes of replication and reproduction, working to re-consider the physical dimensions of the work whilst retaining an element of authenticity in respect of the drivers of divergent practices.

In coming to terms with what appears an artificially imposed restriction, the exhibiting artists will provide a shifting commentary on the historical function of boxes within practice, where the box has been put to work for the purpose of entertainment, ideological critique, aesthetic refinement, as a challenge to the free-market system of exchange and as evidence of a need for spectacle and division.

The box, as a container and vehicle for the storage and transportation of objects, has in a broad sense been symbolic of civilisation’s tendency to separate and protect, and more specifically of the desire to preserve that which is useful and precious from the natural and decaying order of things. From the ancient library of Alexandria to Renaissance cabinets of curiosities (the precursors to modern museums), boxing artefacts and objects of artistic and religious significance has paralleled the creation and development of the objects themselves, with an object’s aura becoming in effect extended through confinement and travel.

That which the box contains becomes evidence both of the journey taken and of the value placed on that journey and its possible outcomes. In short, and in terms of the exhibition of material artworks and artefacts, the box acts to foreground and legitimate the notion of cultural exchange, supporting an idea of rooted, localised meaning in an age of pluralism, globalisation and an apparent dissolution of differences. In representing an artist, a place, an intention or practice, the art object in transit stands for the conditions of its making, which through cultural displacement foregrounds difference as it attains specificity.

Exhibitions are by their nature temporary, and many complete extended tours. However, in highlighting the importance of the box out of which the exhibits spring, Exhibition in a Box draws from the history of the travelling show: from European carnivals and circuses to Victorian and Edwardian Variety and Music Hall entertainers. Such public performances rested in large part on the means and methods of transit. The efficient boxing of props, instruments and costumes not only facilitated a smooth transition from one performance/location to the next but also allowed performers to secure an interconnected web of venues and locations to move on to, which in turn legitimated and extended the reach of their art form.

Within twentieth century artistic practice the box has served a variety of purposes. In Box in a Valise (c.1935-41), Marcel Duchamp replicated the contents of his life’s work in miniature, offering a portable museum as a work in itself, though one whose replicated form critiqued the idea of authenticity. With it, Duchamp extended Dada’s distain for order through an ironic commentary on the myth of completeness (and of the canon) offered by the processes of cataloguing and the re-presentation of a body of work.

In the 1960s George Maciunis developed Duchamp’s idea, gathering objects, readymades, memorabilia and other material artefacts from fellow artist-collaborators, including Yoko Ono and Christo, and assembling Fluxus boxes and Flux-kits. In producing intermedia objects Fluxus sought to dissolve modernist boundaries between high art and kitsch, to fracture the idea of completeness and to challenge the privileging of media-specificity, which in turn supported systems of commodification and exchange. The box humorously took the form of an item purchased; yet more accurately referenced a gift or present. To the Fluxus project as a whole, and in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, reproduction offered, if briefly, a form of escape from the immobilising limitation of the market and the capitalist ideologies that were seen to underpin it.

American sculptor Donald Judd developed the box as a symbol/object of completeness. The sheer accessibility of the box, its structural rigour and familiarity appeared as a bulwark against complexity, artifice and learned and extraneous artistic devices that Minimalist artists grew to despise. The box served, in its emptiness, as an end point for formalist development, utilising formalist restriction to both negate and transcend it. The hope of such a distillation was, perhaps contradictorily, to blur distinctions between art and life in an attempt to erect a democratic edifice built of a non-hierarchical relationship between object and subject. Though Judd’s work travelled, the sheer uncompromising clarity of the forms negated the need for content (or for that matter, dialogue) in the traditional sense. Judd’s boxes are neither full nor empty, filled or emptied—they simply are and were.

Amongst contemporary practitioners, Damien Hirst can be seen, to some extent, to have returned the box to its early devotional function as a container of exotica, relics or religious icons. Hirst’s vitrines, whilst providing a visual reference to Minimalist boxes, in fact continue a lineage of separation and spectacle dating back to the Middle Ages. Here, the box silences its contents in the hope of replicating the Byzantine altarpiece, whose heavy wooden framework limited the possibility of contamination from the world outside when engaged in acts of pious contemplation.

Today, the box is as ubiquitous as ever; yet its role has become less clear against the backdrop of a host of cultural, aesthetic and ideological presuppositions. At its most reduced the box acts as a mere solution to the transportation of goods, at a speed determined by the technological norms of the day. Yet this provides evidence of a continued desire for art works to travel, perhaps in order to take their localised meanings elsewhere or to test themselves in alien climates and return changed. The supporting systems of exchange remain.

Tom Palin, 2015

Still (Studio 24)

Richard Baker, Mark Dunn, Tom Palin, Luke Steele, Adam Stone

To paint is to immobilise time. The stillness of the object of painting serves to disguise the temporal nature of the processes by which a painting is constructed. Yet a painting’s surface is built incrementally, and in its stillness offers clues to what it has been—perhaps the only clues to what, in essence, it is.

The five painters in this exhibition, disparate though their works might appear to be in terms of scale, subject matter, approach, handling, design and intention, all share a common concern with the fundamental constituents of the painted object: surface, material, vehicle, support, and time.

Still is therefore a dialogue about foundations and concealment, where painting is presented as perhaps the most deceptive of time-based media.

 Tom Palin, 2014 

Sum (LCA Fine Art, 2014)

The seventeenth century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, 'our achievements of today are but the sum total of our thoughts of yesterday. You are today where the thoughts of yesterday brought you and you will be tomorrow where the thoughts of today take you.' To the visual artist, the achievements of today, and of tomorrow, are made material and accessible to others through individual works, which are in turn marked by the intentions of those who made them.

Central to this making is the culture of the studio, which within Fine Art extends across all disciplinary approaches and functions as something close to Martin Heidegger’s ‘clearing’ or space, in which practice is allowed to show up as practice. Whatever the material inclination of the maker the practice is rooted in, and never less than, the conditions of its making. Yet in moving beyond material limitations, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

As a spectator it can be daunting to attempt to navigate a route through the maze-like complexity of contemporary Fine Art. As a maker the problem is magnified. In 1979, American art critic Rosalind Krauss mapped out an expanded theoretical field for sculpture in order to account for developments within recent practice. In so doing she drew from the history of modernism, from the logic of evolving forms, and from the traditional function of sculpture in the West.

Today, the speed of expansion within all areas of Fine Art has outstripped the capacity of the artist, critic, or even the art historian to comfortably fence off, sub-divide or sum up the conditions and objects of practice. Meaning has become more localised, more dependent on personal and cultural narratives and on drivers outside of practice itself, to the extent that practice is now, in spirit if not in form, perhaps closer to what it once was.

Within this climate, the contemporary Fine Artist is confronted by difficulties that can become burdens—history, technology, the sheer plurality of ideas and objects. Yet in spite of this burdened condition the Fine Artist is still able, through patience, application, imagination and intelligence, to find freedom and a personal space to think beyond and behind what has been, to test material and theoretical boundaries and to draw and re-draw lines of limitation in the sand. In sum: to understand that meaning functions ‘in relation to’ what is and what has been.

In the course of three years of study these young artists have met their challenges with vigour, sensitivity and humour, and in that time have striven to develop individual voices made audible along material channels of their choosing. The Fine Art programme requires students to acquire knowledge of a wide range of methods and practices, through workshops, studio development and critiques. History and theory are woven into this fabric in order to embed the notion of practice more firmly in the personal, cultural and material constituents of the discipline. Students are equipped with the tools to excavate their own field to reveal the interconnectedness of its layers.

The works of the students on show here bear testament to the accumulation of thoughts and the search for creative freedom. The paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, photographs and films are evidence of separate journeys across choppy waters. Happily, all have reached the other side—to embark once again. This exhibition is, therefore, an aggregate of parts and a point of location for future engagements. A sum is both a conclusion and an acknowledgment of identity, insofar as its particulars must remain visible, knowable and discrete from other things.

You will be tomorrow where the thoughts of today take you. 

Tom Palin, 2014

Every Story Tells A Picture – Martin’s Sausage: From Recollections of Early Childhood

The text is an account, in 39 tercets (over 3 sections), of a fictionalised incident in the life of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegge...