I recently wrote my first review as Detroit correspondent for Chicago’s New Art Examiner. The May/June issue, which has just been published, focuses on exhibits of work by women artists, including Looking Forward, Looking Back by Howardena Pindell at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Nina Chanel Abney’s Royal Flush at the Chicago Cultural Center. Rebecca Memoli, who reviews Royal Flush, concentrates her comments on Abney’s latest large, graphic works, which struck me as being very Stuart-Davis-like. My preference is for her earlier, more expressionistic paintings, but Memoli’s essay is a good introduction to Abney’s work. Pindell’s exhibit, reviewed byAniko Berman, is on view until May 20, and it’s well worth a visit.
I want to thank NAE Managing Editor Tom Mullaney and Editor in Chief Michel Segard for giving me this opportunity to get the word out on exciting contemporary art being shown in Detroit and environs. You can read my review of Shaina Kasztelan and Heidi Barlow’s D3PR3$$10N N4P at Hatch Hamtramck here.
Chicago artist Deborah Baker, whose large pencil drawings are on view now at Firecat Projects until December 16, 2017, once again demonstrates that the artist’s most creative tool rests between her ears. Baker rejects all currently fashionable media such as video, performance and photography. Even within the constraints of conventional drawing, she avoids decorative or descriptive color and perspectival reality. Through this systematic refusal, she achieves complete freedom within a form of expression that is strongly graphic and psychologically resonant.
Baker can be understood to be a sort of free-associational sign painter, a dealer in archetypes collected and added to the page, where they set up visual harmonics within the composition. The large drawings in 6B are based upon her previous small, black and white embroidered pieces, several of which are in the show. She chose to make her drawings on large sheets of brown kraft paper in order to create larger scale works for 6B.
Baker describes her process: I always start with a word or title. That word evokes images for me …I also always begin with the border or frame first…I do few or no preparatory drawings… sometimes a small thumbnail sketch to get the layout, no marking…though I do fold the fabric to orient the space.
Her previous work with embroidery affects Baker’s compositional choices in the more recent large drawings. There is a kind of steady rhythm to the fabric pieces. Each constituent image is spaced out over the surface of the artwork, creating the impression that the composition must be “read” rather than seen. The patterned border surrounding each embroidery resembles decorative craftwork from the Victorian age, though the images within are more reminiscent of ethnic or folk images, or designs from tattoo art.
In the large drawings, the decorative designs that Baker uses to define the outer limits of her small embroidered compositions begin to resemble theatre prosceniums, and the compositions become performances. This is especially evident in the drawings Connect and 12 Dancing Princesses (which even includes a suggestion of an audience in the lower portion of the drawing.) She takes a metaphorical step back in Center, which once again recalls Victorian embroidery.
A recurring theme in Baker’s work is the mystery of the long-term loving relationship. It can be no accident that the couples seen in the embroidered Link and Tied, and in the drawing Union are skeletal. “Until death do us part” is not just a metaphor here. In Cryptic, the image of the silhouetted couple facing each other refers both to a famous optical illusion and to the opaque black box of long term commitment as visualized in an all-seeing pyramid. In Hope vs. Hope, love and conflict co-exist.
It’s been said that editing is the only art, and Deborah Baker’s deceptively simple drawings prove it. These large pictures of dancers, hearts and grinning skeletons appear at first blush to be simple, naïve and almost childlike, but upon closer examination are nothing of the kind. The artist has created a complex visual language that allows her complete freedom of expression within the limited means she employs.
For information about Firecat Projects and 6B go here