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

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