Art

A Painter Who Left New York and Abstraction Behind, and Never Looked Back

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Jo Baer, “Shrine of the Piggies (The Pigs Hog it All and Defacate and Piss on Where From They Get It and With Whom They Will not Share. That s It)” (2000) (all photos by Valerie Bennett, all images courtesy Camden Arts Centre)

LONDON — Once an artist is written about, curated, collected, and fitted within a neat framework, there is this sense that the artist has somehow been “figured out.” We like categories, in part because they are easier to understand. The career of Josephine “Jo” Baer (b. 1929), however, has resisted this black-and-white way of thinking and compartmentalization.

Baer’s journey from the West Coast to New York City in 1960 brought her to great prominence. It was especially her intense and prolific research in so-called hardedge, non-objective painting that was applauded. As she furthered her practice, however, Baer could sense that her research in paint as a minimalist was shifting, as were her ideas of the modern art movement in general. Baer stated in a 1995 interview with Linda Boersma that the modern avant-garde art “died of old age”:

The world changed in the Sixties. We understood that revolution was no longer possible in 1968, that multi-nationals ran things, that Marxism as we had understood it did not work, that social justice was not imminent, that the optimism, which was the whole thrust of the twentieth century, was no longer current. The work in the Sixties was utopian. We already knew it was over and we were saying, ‘Yes, but…’ I think that was what characterized minimalist work.

With this sense that the times were changing, Baer moved to the countryside of County Louth, Ireland, in 1975. There, she opened and explored all possibilities. The country suited her, as she told me over the phone, and allowed her to reach new levels of research that nagging New York could never have allowed. Baer needed to get away from the suffocation of being a drone in the city’s art bubble. She, like many before her, became an ex-pat to experience the world, to explore differences among cultures and expand her curiosity in the studio. Not an easy decision for someone growing in fame, and sales, as she was at the time.

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Installation view of ‘Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants’ at Camden Arts Centre

Baer is an optimist. At 86, she is vibrant and maintains an enthusiastic and playful studio practice, even as she continues to struggle to show this more recent, and amazing, body of work, which is too often is compared to her earlier minimalist paintings.

Her current exhibit, Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants, at the Camden Arts Centre, features works from 1960 to 2013. Though there is actually an equal amount of works represented for each phase of her work, her latest paintings occupy more gallery space and are more prominently displayed. In general, the galleries are well-hung. All too often it feels that curators decide to cram in as much as possible into a space, overwhelming the viewer in an unnecessary and unintended way. Luckily, this exhibit, like much of the work in it, allows for contemplative space.

The first gallery presents Baer’s earliest (“Untitled,” 1960) and latest (“Heraldry [Posts and Spreads],” 2013) works in the exhibit. One of the most striking first impressions is the way the canvases are stretched directly on the wall, almost like wallpaper or a subway advertisement — not to compare them visually with such mundanity, but rather to comment on the paintings’ ability to blend in and become part of the wall. Baer has always been more interested in painting as a surface rather than as an object; she never considered a four-inch stretcher bar to necessarily create an object in the first place. Even when Baer paints the edges of the canvases, like in the wraparounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she is solely intrigued by the painted surface, even though she agrees they are interpreted as “tak[ing] part too much in object-hood.”

The newer paintings almost become portals or fragments of time, displayed floating in front of us. This effect is so important in the viewing of the work — the unencumbered paintings become more scene, more memory, or fragment, than object. They seem fleeting, yet they are permanent and firm. They’re grounded, while hovering between the cement floor and ceiling. In “Heraldry (Posts and Spreads)” (2013), coats of arms and skulls trace and record family histories. The cement-like surface is curved at either end. An intricate radiant web of cracks radiate outward from the painting’s center casting all the way to the canvas edge. It is subtle, but the wall becomes part of the painting. This blip acts like a grounding tool, as a way of reminding us of our own placement in space.

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Installation view of ‘Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants,’  left: “In the Land of the Giants (Spirals and Stars)” (2012), right: “Heraldry (Posts and Spreads)” (2013)

The paintings are more than a compilation of fragments and collaged materials — they are vast collections of information. They draw from the past, not simply for discovery’s sake, or even to better understand the past, but as a way to look to the future. Baer is fascinated by land, civilization, and how the two go together. In Ireland at the Smarmore Castle, the manor and working farm where she resided, had a Norman keep and was surrounded by ancient remnants like the Hurlstone, along with other stone structures, tombs, and graves. Baer became interested in how her “Neolithic neighbors actually placed their holy sites to bring Orion the Warrior down to earth — each star and nebulae site was built on the ground as it was located in heaven.” Jo Baer, painter, has become a sociologist, archaeologist, and spiritualist.

Baer’s paintings are willfully reflective and open-ended, as they seem to tell stories about possible pasts and likely futures. In “Time Line (Spheres, Angles and the Negative of the 2nd Derivative)” (2012), we are cast into a layered dream. Floating island rock formations that appear neither here nor there are surrounded by an active landscape: air travels above a simple building structure or bridge that connects the corners of the canvas — sky, land, and air all tangible. Though we may not know the specifics, “Timeline” takes us on a mysterious journey. Once we somehow manage to inhabit the image, we realize we struggle to find our footing.

Mysterious connections between works unravel before us as if a hidden message will reveal itself beneath the paintings’ layers the longer we look. Baer actually collages the layers digitally; the very experience of flipping and floating happens in the studio as she gathers an arsenal of tracings, photos from books, magazines, newspapers, as well as charts and maps — anything that can be digitized and then played with on the computer. To her own account, she is “getting very handy with Google search.”

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Jo Baer, “Time-Line (Spheres, Angles and the Negative of the 2nd Derivative)” (2012)

In showing the newest paintings first, the show places appropriate emphasis on Baer’s current studio practice. Rather than delving too deeply in the past, the second gallery, which showcases work from her earlier days in New York, seems to hint at Baer’s impassioned trajectory, making the viewer privy to works as notes, or moments within her larger life of research.

There’s a shift in the third and final gallery of the exhibition as natural light floods the space and the flooring goes from concrete to herringbone wood. The surrounding elements become more exaggerated. This is true of the work too. There is a more visceral feel to these images as we move from the archaeological and historical to the sociological and physiological. While “Shrine of the Piggies (The Pigs Hog it All and Defacate and Piss on Where From They Get It and With Whom They Will not Share. That’s It)” (2000) deals with bodily fluids and the acts of retaining and draining, “Testament of the Powers That Be (Where Trees Turn to Sand, Residual Colours Stain the Lands)” (2001) depicts migration and the settlement of land. To the left, “Memorial for an Art World Body (Nevermore)” (2009) alludes to the mythical night sky and astronomy as related to humans.

There is an ethereal and celestial quality to these works, as if we are mapping time by clues in the sky. From the mystical we move to the mythical; it appears we are now working within the boundaries of our own stories. We take from our own histories and project our futures. Sometimes abstractly, Baer lays out the possibilities as she reflects on civilization and time.

Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants represents the unending journey that is Jo Baer’s research into humanity. Her thirst for discovery and adventure are laid bare on canvas with paint. These explorations are universal — a developed outline of lived and imagined experiences that are approachable. It is up to us to match her generosity and humility in order to fully experience the messages she has eloquently laid out for us.

Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants continues at the Camden Arts Centre (Arkwright Road, London NW3 6DG) through June 21. 

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