John Baker’s Collage Paintings: The Aesthetic Possibilities
Rather than having a conceptual purpose (that might very well be better or more appropriately articulated in words than in painting!) my goal as a painter is straightforward and timeless: to create, in the visual/emotional sense, very good paintings! In the service of this goal, in addition to accomplishing some of the actual painting myself, I appropriate pieces from found paintings. So, my collage paintings are collective efforts, accomplished by myself and by the painters whose works I appropriate. I want the kinds of advantages Peter Paul Rubens gained for his artistic efforts by employing a large team of assistant painters in his workshop: time advantages and energy advantages that enhance the prospects for the prolific creation of large scale, extremely complex works. But my process is not merely similar to 17th Century Flemish and Dutch workshop practices, in which collective authorship was a commonplace for the sake of productivity. In the 17th Century workshops seamless uniformity of style was the only acceptable (indeed the only imaginable) outcome of collective authorship. But in my work, I explore and develop in the opposite aesthetic direction: within the boundaries set by coherence, I look to allow variety to speak between the different hands I choose for inclusion. In this sense my collage paintings are like visual choruses in which there is a richness of texture, of gesture and color choice and density, of emotional meaning and evocation, that no one voice could achieve. In another, secondary, sense, this shifting and variety in my work is true to the reality of life experience, with its endlessly changing, and sometimes discontinuous, moments.
I believe it is extremely promising aesthetically/expressively to separate pieces of found paintings from their limitations in their original contexts. Liberated from their intended artistic function (and any “failure” to work in relation to the original artists’ intentions) these pieces are free to take on my newly imagined purposes for them and be far more successful in relation to their belonging in my collage.
There is also another aesthetic/perceptual advantage to the constant shifts in the styles of representation. The continual shifting not only promotes the pictorial virtue of freshness; it also pre-empts the possibility of the viewer focusing on any one style and from there considering its general limitations. Not allowing the viewer to “get through” the representation to a critical or skeptical look at the style in which it was achieved keeps focus.
I was born and raised in Manhattan where I attended Donald Judd’s woodworking classes for two years at the Allen-Stevenson School. Whereas I feel that my work is more spontaneous, sensual and emotional than Judd’s work his constructivist method has remained with me in my collage process. While attending graduate school in the Art Department at Brown University I was given an award in the competition for the Gilbert Stuart Prize for art. At this time, still following Judd’s teachings, I was creating wood constructions. I was also greatly interested in the wood assemblages of Varujan Boghosian, who was professor of sculpture at Brown. For several years thereafter, my work was quite close in spirit to Boghosian.
My first major exhibition was in 1971, when sixteen of my sculptures were shown at the Brockton Art Museum. Marilyn Friedman Hoffman, the curator of the exhibition, associated my work with the French classical tradition of Poussin, Seurat and Braque. I was given a still larger solo show at the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 1973 in praise of which a reviewer noted that my work “gives clear indication of my ability to coordinate materials.” Also, in 1973 I showed with the Pucker-Safrai Gallery in Boston. In 1974, on the occasion of another solo show (at the Gallery of the Marion Art Association) a reviewer noted that my work contained “a unique combination of humor and anecdote.”
In the early 1970s I began to be interested in painting as a way of generating complex, fantasy-based imagery more readily than in sculpture. My first solo exhibition of paintings, held in 1975 at Wheaton College, was reviewed in the Boston Globe by Robert Taylor who wrote “Baker’s paintings demonstrate that the human figure as a source of fresh ideas still endures.” Taylor was the most well-known and respected critic in Boston and his understanding of my painting meant a great deal to me. He understood, in seeing the source of my work “in problems of the human condition”, that to paint the human figure with psychically charged contents in 1975 was to leave abstract and abstract-tending modernism totally behind. My work at this time anticipated both “New Image Painting” of the later 1970s and “Neo-Expressionism” of the early 1980s three to five years before these movements began to be promoted internationally.
In 1980 I exhibited at the Marisa Del Re Gallery in New York. James Testa, reviewing my work in this exhibition, said it was “colorful and witty, and full of energy and a truly clever use of materials.” Writing in Artspeak, Palmer Poroner said that my work possessed that most essential strength of all collage art, “a sense of with”.
I achieved a major breakthrough to greater artistic quality in my studio in 1992 by resolving to include more collage in my paintings. The first series of collage paintings that resulted was exhibited at the Ashuah Irving Gallery in Boston in 1996. Paul Parcellin, reviewing for Art New England, said that “the works are full of big, bright color and an overall sense of surreal playfulness” and that “the collages raise a bundle of interesting issues.” Parcellin was also sensitive to the psychical intensities in my
work: he said that the figures depicted in my paintings “seem caught between the fragmented worlds they inhabit, expressing a variety of moods and personae. It’s as if the artist is trying to express the multiple levels of human consciousness that refuse to be tacked down to one precise meaning.”
In 2002 I acquired a very large studio, which enables me to array the vocabulary of pieces for my collage work to greater effect than ever before. The first series of works created in this studio, combining a new level of beauty and fineness with a rich emotional depth and complexity, were exhibited in a solo exhibition at Portals Gallery in Chicago in 2004.
In 2007 a large number of my works were exhibited at Gallery 1581 in Brookline Massachusetts. Kristen Paulson explained in Brookline Magazine that in my work I aim to “make visible psychic energies through active brushwork above the heads and bodies of the figures in my paintings.” This was my way of remaining committed to what has been my purpose all along: the expression of inner life thru imagery so novel that the impact is both intense and inescapable.
In November of 2011 six of my large collage paintings were shown at Lumen Gallery, New York, and the following spring (2012) I was given a solo exhibition there. Describing in detail “John Baker’s wonderful and worthy project” in his article, “Master of Illusion”, about the exhibition in the July 2012 number of American Art Collector, James Balestrieri saw in the large, elaborate works “something that reminded me of the great Venetian painters, the Tiepolos…the elder Tiepolo’s turgid, colorful allegories and the younger Tiepolo’s fascination with the carnival…” About the very latest works, which “depict the outer and inner lives of a single unnamed figure at the same time”, Balestrieri says that they “dive deep into contemporary concepts of the self”.
In February-April 2014 I had a solo show at Galerie Mourlot, New York, and since then I have continued to create large and complex works in which imagery expresses intense psychical energy. Now, in the early 2020s, I see that my work is in the midst of a popular trend; the New Figurative Painting, as it is called, is in the spotlight on the contemporary art scene, dominant in galleries, museums and critical focus. (See Barry Schwabsky, “What’s Wrong with the New Figurative Painting”, The Nation, October 30, 2019.) Among the now prominent figurative painters I feel the closest affinity with Marie Dumas, who studied psychology at the Institute of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, and who, like myself, pursues psychical intensity and the depiction of deep inner states as a primal content in her paintings. The content of inner life is my true and most abiding subject, and so whatever connections of my paintings to various art movements might be perceived, I feel its roots lie deepest in Surrealism’s pursuit of the pre-rational and the automatic.