CHICAGO –– I first saw Leslie Baum’s work in a sprawling group show, My Crippled Friend, at the Canzani Center Gallery (October 11, 2013–January 10, 2014), the main exhibition space of Columbus College of Art and Design (Columbus, Ohio).
Thoughtfully curated by Michael Goodson and Patrick O’Rorke, My Crippled Friend included works by Tom Burckhardt, Kathy Butterly, Sarah Cain, Cheryl Donegan, Joe Fyfe, Katharina Grosse, Mary Heilmann, Jim Lee, Cordy Ryman, and Nancy Shaver. According to the press release, the intention of My Crippled Friend was about “the intersection of painterly abstraction and the object,” but rather than approaching objecthood as “a formalist issue, the works in this exhibition gather their identity through the subversion of formalism—scrambling and reassembling themselves in an aesthetic shell game […]”
One of the many artists whose work was new to me was Leslie Baum, whom I had met in Chicago a few months earlier through the artist and gallerist, Dan Devening. Baum’s painting/installation “Another Way of Knowing” did not seem related to anything else in the show or elsewhere for that matter.
“Another Way of Knowing” consists of three distinct parts: a landscape done in spray paint and oil on canvas, which hangs on the wall; four large jagged pieces made of stiff board and painted mostly gray and black, with a touch of green on one, which stand on the floor; and small, cutout watercolors placed upright on a small shelf below and to the right of the landscape. . The low placement of the landscape in conjunction with the array of relatively large, jagged floor pieces challenged one’s sense of scale and proportion, particularly as governed by the rules of perspective. Things felt simultaneously too small and too big, which was disorienting.
“Another Way of Knowing” seemed to be about different ways of experiencing a landscape, from the spray painted sun hanging low in the sky to the outcropping of jagged rocks suggested by the floor pieces, which stand between the viewer and the wall work. And yet, by varying her mediums and materials, Baum also played with the viewer’s expectations — for one, the sun seemed more like a watercolor than a blast of spray paint. It was also apparent to me that Baum wasn’t being ironic or didactic in her variations of medium and format, that she was after something else, which whetted my curiosity further.
Baum’s studio is a storefront in Logan Square, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. The first thing that struck me about her studio was the variety of materials I saw there: large pieces of canvas that had been stained gray, which Baum referred to as “rabbit holes”; watercolors of pottery shards; watercolors of shard-like sections of well-known and not-so-well-known paintings; spray painted sheets of paper; oil paintings on canvas, each with a touch of spray paint; paintings on cut sheets of stiff board known as Sintra, which were placed on the floor; small cutout pieces on shelves.
During our conversation I learned that Baum was not wedded to a particular process, matter or material. At one point, she started using the cutout shapes, which she had generated from the watercolors she had made of photographs that she had taken of pottery shards, as guides for tracing shapes on reproductions of paintings, which she would also render in watercolor. Baum’s process of one thing leading to another is guided by drawing in paint, beginning with watercolor, which cannot be gone over or wiped clean.
Fitted together, these shapes became the basis of paintings that would inevitably undergo further changes. For the most part, the citation was both lost and transformed in the process.
It occurred to me, while looking at the cutout watercolors of the pottery shards, that the large floor pieces in “Another Way of Knowing” might have been derived from these works, but this new piece of information did not substantially alter my initial view. Clearly, the various transferences and changes that took place along the way altered the original image, itself a fragment, into something other than what it was. The paintings did not look as if they had been based on collage or citation.
Baum’s watercolors of pottery shards share something with Hermine Ford’s shaped paintings of pottery shards. Both artists are interested in putting fragments together. At the same time, Baum maintains a number of parallel projects, including the works in spray paint on paper. In other pieces currently in progress, the artist was rearranging painted pieces of Sintra, acrylic paintings on canvas, spray paint on paper, and watercolors on paper, trying to figure out how they might be grouped. Did this go with that? If so, why? She seemed willing to court chaos in order to see if anything interesting might come of it.
The fragment, which is one of the touchstones of Baum’s approach, conveys the possibility that there is no whole. It also suggests that the artist probably believes that we are born into a shattered world and that we will likely shatter it further. It seems to me that Baum is drawn to fragments that resist identification, which I suspect is because she isn’t interested in either parody or citation, but in what might lie beyond them. Perhaps that is why she talks about “portals,” the threshold between the known and what lies is beyond. She wants to get past what she knows, what she can copy and transfer to another material. “Sisyphus” (2013), a square, largely yellow painting done in oil and spray paint, sums up the difficulty of her endeavor, the wall she is deliberately bumping up against.
I am particularly drawn to three oil and spray paintings — “Before Beginnings,” “The Brevity of Oracles” and “A Perishable Delight” (all dated 2014) — which she rearranges on her studio wall. In each, there is a portal or door, an entrance or entranceway. Despite their shared theme, each painting is done differently. This doesn’t mean that they look as if they were done by different people, because they don’t. However, their affinities shouldn’t be taken to imply that Baum has a signature style, because she doesn’t.
One of the things that strikes me about these and other paintings, such as “Sisyphus,” is that Baum might use different ways to apply paint, but she isn’t interested in foregrounding her work either as a display of faux-virtuosity or postmodern commentary. With all sorts of methodologies and materials at her disposal, Baum doesn’t yet have a clear-cut sense of where to go next. I admire her resistance to going down well-trod paths or contextualizing it in an institutionally approved discourse. It is refreshing to go to an artist’s studio and not hear the word “postmodern” used once. Meanwhile, Baum is making some terrific and interesting work.