Fleeting moments, hidden order

Sleeping Cat, Chris Baker

When I stopped in to pick up one of my paintings from the back room at Oxford Gallery yesterday, I couldn’t stop looking at Chris Baker’s new paintings. He’s one of three outstanding artists on view in Water Works. All three are exploring the power of a water-based medium with amazing skill. Chip Stevens’ assurance with watercolor reminds me of a Japanese or Chinese painter’s fearless, irrevocable brushwork and use of negative space. And Barbara Fox’s images obsessively and meticulously return to glass globes strewn across surfaces they absorb and reflect. They struck me as a visualization of a heightened state of mind where the boundary between self and other has dropped away—no small achievement for what are essentially highly realistic still lifes. So I’m not doing justice to the masterful work of his co-exhibitors by focusing on Baker, yet Baker’s work calls for celebration in a special way because I’m finally beginning to feel what he’s up to. I’ve always admired his prolific ability to evoke light and form as well as a more ethereal sense of time and place in his scenes, but often I’ve wanted to simplify his images as I’m looking at them. He tackles everyday life in all its complexity, never editing out the detritus. If there’s a random rock sitting on that street, you’ll find it in the painting. What’s remarkable in these paintings is both how complex and yet unified they seem.

Baker seems to take his camera everywhere—the Oxford show includes some marvelous views from New York City—and then he paints in gouache by working from his snapshots. He offers fleeting glimpses of the world he moves through every day. Baker’s adherence to what is actually there reminds me of Fairfield Porter’s allegiance to the often awkward way things and people occupy their space in the world: like Porter, Baker seems to consider it almost an ethical obligation to report almost exactly what he sees. There’s no staging. No setting up. It’s simply whatever is there, transformed into paint. And yet, without distorting or stylizing what he sees, Baker somehow conveys more than the actual. You get more than surfaces in his scenes, though it’s hard to articulate what that more is. (For me, that elusive more is the whole point of picking up a brush.)

The strength of his work is, in part, formal. He seems to have a rigorously geometric sense of form and volume, but not to the exclusion of his sensitivity toward whatever quality of light is bathing the world he’s recreating. In a stunning painting of Rochester’s graffiti-tagged aqueduct, the incredibly crisp rigor of his lines, both angular and curving, as they converge toward a far turn in the tunnel, remind me of Canaletto’s precision and his ability to unify the complexity of a sometimes chaotic level of detail. Canaletto’s image of a ruined building represents a similar ability to create a visually compelling image out of something most would consider essentially an eyesore. Baker does this again and again. In his work, you sense a constant awareness of the pure Platonic cube or sphere or cone within the imperfect vessel, in an actual planter or a recessed window or a car waiting at a red light, and even in the shape of his human figures. It’s as if he feels the structure of what he’s painting in his fingertips as he renders it. At the same time, though, on the surface of his paper he uses patterns of color and value to anchor these apparently complicated scenes with simplifying compositional relationships. Bits of the same orange appear almost as points of an invisible triangle in Sleeping Cat, and they work with areas of yellow and blue to give an underlying abstract armature to what would seem to most an extremely messy scene of an urban dig. There’s a tiny patch of near-black in a recessed nook of the Caterpillar earthmover, which, for me, acts as a pivot for the entire scene, the rest of which is painted in lighter values. The image revolves around that little patch of black.

The formal strength of this work, though, can be a distraction from a more subtle and more difficult to articulate quality that infuses itself into the world he evokes. Painting is always about time, in one way or another. It’s an unnatural act. It’s a way of denying the passage of time by somehow capturing moments of experience before they’re gone. Painting makes a poignant claim on a sense of lost time—reminding you of how things are constantly going away, receding into the past, which only accentuates the sense that every moment can be a marvel. With Baker, that marvel can be nothing more than standing on Manhattan’s Hi Line and looking down on an ordinary scene of pedestrians and traffic, or gazing down into construction site where a street seems to have become a gravel pit. Somehow, the way Baker paints it, regardless of what it is, you feel the angle and temperature of the sunlight, the quality of the season, the feel of the air moving through the city—all the things that would make the hair stand up on your arms if you were to return from the dead to sample the taste and smell and light of daily life without having to worry about losing them this time around. The most ordinary things become fascinating, and they never get old.



1 Response to “Fleeting moments, hidden order”

  1. chris baker

    David–Thanks for your kind words, and for taking the time to “look” at my work. I really appreciate your thoughts and insight. It’s always interesting to hear artists talk about the work of other’s. Often they have a much clearer picture and sharper focus than the artists themselves! You have been a help to me in my “struggle” to continue in this direction. Thanks again. chris