I would like to think that as soon as the Italian/Argentine artist Lucio Fontana began his Concetto Spaziale series of “paintings” (he did not use that word), puncturing and slicing the surfaces, paintings were no longer destined to remain flat and affixed to gallery walls. Canvases morphed into sculpture and sculpture referenced painting; close one eye to eliminate stereopsis, and the gallery walls themselves become a canvas. This is one of a couple strategies in Leslie Baum’s exhibit, Co-conspirators and the possibility of painting in a parallel universe at Hap Gallery.
I will say at this early stage that I am not a fan of the title for this exhibit. “Co-conspirators” by itself might be enough as it suggests a scheme, perhaps initiated by a sole mind, then elucidated through cooperation. The agreed-upon agenda then carries an echo from the point of origin, which is what I see here. Baum has created and displayed this complex work in a manner that shifts cumulatively and dimensionally, although the dimensionality are of the second and third varieties.
I have been familiar with Baum’s work for about twenty years. Very much a painter, most of her work remained steadfastly two-dimensional until three or four years ago when Baum began making irregularly shaped paintings. These forms sometimes do double-duty as sculpture. Whether on the wall, on a shelf, or set on the floor, placement has become as important as palette.
Hap Gallery is a small, narrow space, making it possible to take in nearly the whole room from the front door. And if one were to do so for this show, one would be very conscious of the predominating colors of yellow and red, along with black, and a smattering of green, blue and violet. In addition, Baum has coordinated works so those colors lead the eye to take in the space as a whole. For my purposes, I will liken it to how one might encounter an orchestrated suburban living room (but in a good way).
So coordinated is this exhibit, one may initially feel a little displaced scrutinizing a single piece: You are invited to a cocktail party in said living room. Not wanting to wander about alone and appear to be nosing about, you try to squeeze into a group already engaged in a conversation, yet the group continues on as if you didn’t exist. (Bear with me.) While you might consider this rude behavior on their part, perhaps you would be better served to stand back, listen, and take a special pleasure in noting all the women in the group are wearing open-toed shoes and have painted their toenails the same bright orange. You are then free to wander about the room verifying that and other trends.
However, we have to start somewhere and I would suggest doing so with the centerpiece painting, “co-conspirator.” A bit abstract, it takes but a second to recognize it as a vase with two flowers. Although of no identifiable variety, the centers of the flowers appear to be reflections—more like vestiges—of other works in the room. But there is more: Is that a passage from Matisse in the receptacle of one flower? In fact, a quick look around the room reveals elements of Guston, Kline, Leger, Frankenthaler, and yes, Fontana.
Evincing this lineage is another form of coordination, and it is often less directly evident in an artist’s oeuvre.The still life painting of flowers in a vase is chosen by the home’s occupants because it matches almost everything else in the room. We get this. But whether a living room or gallery, this is the artist’s space, necessarily informed by preferences, historical precursors and influences, all of which are so much more than color swatches offered up at a local boutique.
While a good starting point, this strategy would be rudimentary were it not for elements less predictable. What are we to make of the little, propped-up red, orange, blue, purple and brown paintings on the table in the piece, “an inexplicably social situation”? Arranged like an abundance of mementos, pictures of family members, or small gifts, remembrances such as these are expected to be shown regardless of breathing room for each or whether they go with the overall decor. Even though the two in the forefront echo the flower centers across from them, we quickly peruse them as incidentals—perhaps to our peril. On the wall above and behind this table is a rather aggressive painting that looks to be the hearth for the room (off the floor). Or, it could be a Rothko-red demon with a gaping maw, ready to devour the table’s contents, and, by extension, everyone at the party.
I am looking for windows in this room. Not the front windows of the gallery, but rather the windows in this living room. I want to see the curtain choices, or barring that, the view. And I think I find it in the back of the gallery.
An alcove holds the yellow painting, “duet,” which itself is planted on the floor. The painting recalls the sun, and as such, it is a sequestered source of illumination and warmth only for a pair of pieces that look to be a deconstructed plant-as-paintings in the other back corner of the gallery. “Keyhole” is the stem and “peephole” is the seed head. Yet, as the context for any work of art is illusory, we are not quite taken outside. The stem becomes a constrained look “through” the “keyhole” at a very large green negative space, and the peeled-away peepholes (Fontana) reveal nothing more than the gallery wall. This is the environment in which we find ourselves.
In fact, we are drawn back into the room, for “Keyhole” has a shape not unlike a number of pieces on the table. Again, this installation is as much about shape/placement as it is about color cues, and Baum’s careful orchestration pulls it together in a manner that is clearly understood upon first glance, yet not rewarding unless we work for it. Despite the bright colors that abound, I read this collection of work as a subtle critique of the more comfortable constructs of making and seeing, plus a little elbow to the ribs of those self-seduced, dulled attendees of the soirée.
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