‘Nailing heaven and earth together’  : landscape, myth and minimalism in the paintings of Jo Bae
The career of Jo Baer has regularly been described in terms of an abrupt and decisive transition from the minimalist painting of early decades to the fluid and dreamlike pictorial mode that she famously came to term “radical figuration”. (She has disavowed this definition more recently, dissatisfied by the overfamiliar connotations of “figuration”). And yet Towards the Land of the Giants, which revolves around six recent paintings inspired by Neolithic Ireland, reveals that transition to have been closer to a continuum than a paradigm shift. Across the five decades surveyed in this succinct exhibition, Baer has dramatically expanded the conceptual framework of her earliest minimalist paintings – not so much replacing one ‘-ism’ with another, as reconciling and binding together her myriad and divergent concerns (ranging from the science of colour-perception to the workings of myth and collective memory).
In Baer’s works of the 1960s and 70s, those concerns centre on pictorial space – the tensions between perspectival illusion and monochrome flatness; the interplay between hard edges and boundless ether; the image as a fleeting presence or an absent presence. Concepts that find dramatic and florid expression in later paintings are played out in coolly reductive terms in works such as Untitled (1966–74), which typifies the acutely pared-down format initially adopted by Baer (and gradually adapted and reinvented over the ensuing decades). Two white monochrome canvases have been bordered by a black stripe, itself fringed with a narrower line of colour. Inspired by the work of Jasper Johns, Baer had arrived at an appreciation of “how a work should be the thing itself”; and in this and similar pieces, the subject of the painting is the very process of framing space and the absence of an image (beyond the most basic image of a portal or window). In Untitled, each white lacuna is made doubly impregnable by the act of doubling the composition into a diptych; each framed space sits beside – and ‘frames’ – the other.
In the Wraparound paintings of the 1970s, we find expanses of colour similarly framed or hemmed in by peripheral bands of colour which fold onto the edges of the canvases. Here, however, simple patterns begin to appear within the confines of these borders: the elongated yellow panels of Untitled (1973) that might almost be drawn from the trompe l’oeil wall paintings of Roman villas, while the sinuous arcs of blue and mauve at the perimeter of Study for Wraparound Painting (1973) evoke decorative contemporary wallpaper designs. We see Baer edging, through her coloured edges, towards a mode of painting that is more playfully (if still elliptically) referential, willing to be grandiose or quotidian by turns. Resembling slices of the visible world, these ‘pictorial indices’ enclose and shore up against the undifferentiated abstract colour filling each canvas – they stand as borders or brackets, establishing a tentative sense of place or context. At this time, Baer wrote that “Sensation is the edge of things. Where there are no edges, there are no places – a uniform visual field quickly disappears.”
Further delineating and accentuating the boundaries of pictorial space, Baer’s frieze-shaped canvases of the late 1960s and early 1970s – Untitled (Study), H. Tenebrosa – introduce simple geometric motifs or glyphs to the edges of monochrome expanses. These work to convert the ‘pure’ abstractness of colour into a recessive scheme or simplified landscape, the differently-sized shapes implying bodies in space. In H. Tenebrosa (1971), narrow black triangles encroach on the borders of an amorphous white monochrome so as to imply horizons or vanishing points: a depthless field comes to appear tangible and traversable. The ‘H’ of the title affirms – in bold formalist terms – the horizontality of the canvas, but the Latin of ‘Tenebrosa’ has a more metaphorical, even fanciful, subtext, and attests Baer’s increasing absorption into her art of concerns that transcend the merely formal. Purloined from a book of botanical Latin, it translates as ‘darkness’ or ‘dark regions’, aptly evoking the artist’s desire to probe the recesses of memory and the imagination. Meaning is multiplied rather than fixed, in anticipation of the playful obscurantism characterising many of Baer’s later works. In H. Arcuata (1971), two rhomboid blocks – each composed of slanting coloured lines – swerve across the upper edge of the canvas like racing stripes, fluttering insignia, or slicker versions of Morris Louis’s multi-coloured rivulets. Baer’s interest again extends beyond the material facts of her medium – she flirts, albeit subtly, with figuration. By the end of the 1970s, in a painting such as Facing (1978/79), that flirtation has become overt, with the figurative referent swelling from a fleeting mark to the dominant focus of the picture. A repeating corporeal fragment (an outline of thigh and buttock?) floats on a muted, ethereal backdrop, echoing the humble iconography of a cave painting. At the top of the picture, it mutates into a more enigmatic biomorphic form – embryonic, folded, sexual.
In the mid-1970s, Baer moved to rural Ireland for a period, and the themes of landscape, nature, history and folklore accrue in ever-multiplying layers on top of her pre-existing ideas concerning space, boundaries, and the point at which an image concretizes or dematerializes. Just as the strips of colour or geometric ciphers in H. Tenebrosa and H. Arcuata functioned as markers – delimiting and mapping space – pictorial elements now cohere and dissipate across the canvas in increasingly complex allegorical systems. Tis Ill Pudling in the Cockatrice Den (La- Bas) (1987) sets forth – both in its prolix title and thronging imagery –an indistinct mythosphere of symbols and impressions. We glimpse a portico and steps that might equally be ancient Egyptian architecture or a Hollywood film set; an exotic red bird perches before an undulating red snake that suggests the caduceus of Hermes (a staff and serpent intertwined), or perhaps the ancient god Asclepius, transformed – as Ovid memorably recounts in the Metamorphoses – into a giant snake that (in the suitably arcane language of Arthur Golding’s translation) “hissed twyce with spirting toong. Then trayld he downe the fine And glistring greeces of his church.” Baer’s work offers a framework – a mental space – for such flights of fancy.
In the most recent series of paintings on display, the eponymous In the Land of the Giants (first shown at the Stedelijik Museum, Amsterdam, in 2013), Baer returns to the ancient landscape of County Louth, Ireland, refracting its geography and prehistoric monuments through her distinctive painterly lens – a lens that simultaneously abstracts and allegorises reality. The topography and archaeological landmarks of the region are juxtaposed with their own cartographic representations – naturalistic depiction sliding into its schematic, diagrammatic double. The starting point for the series was a famous megalith known as the Hurlstone, in which a perfect circle has been bored through the centre. Local legend has it that ‘a giant threw it there’, and the monument operates in this way as a hinge between human and superhuman realms, or between reality and folklore. In a similar conjunction of the everyday world and otherworldly myth, the paintings conflate real-life forms (monoliths, mounds, or the figure of Baer herself traipsing as if on a walking holiday) with imaginary or remembered ones. For instance, In the Land of the Giants (Spirals and Stars) (2012) has at its centre a spiralling black hole, resembling a giant pupil, which hurls out or sucks in the picture’s scattered motifs; a giant black crow sits atop a stone, seeming, like Ted Hughes’s diabolical bird, to be “Nailing heaven and earth together” with an import that is numinous as much as natural. The sense of the natural world having been invaded by unreal spectres is compounded by chance art-historical interpolations, for example the small figure of the Infanta Margaret Theresa, administered to by her maid, from Velázquez’s Las Meninas. In another way, however, such picaresque intruders deftly evoke the freewheeling workings of the imagination as it wanders through time and place.
In Dawn (Lines and Destinations) (2012), a line of flaming obelisks recedes along one side of the picture. Transposed from a photograph taken in the Orkney Isles in Scotland, these primordial stones describe the path of an ‘equinoxial sunbeam’ or horizontal band that also crosses the site of Loughcrew, County Meath, one of the largest known megalithic burial grounds. Rugged and modular in format, the staggered monoliths nonetheless compress a cosmic frame of reference; and in this sense, the minimalist and metaphorical tropes of Baer’s art find a point of intersection in the prehistoric construction. The obelisks are paralleled, on the other side of the canvas, by a more pictographic or naïve illustration – a condensing of the same landscape, flattened and patterned and arrested by a ruled line as neat as a computer graphic (Baer fed the imagery periodically into a computer and developed the compositions on-screen, and scans of these images became drawings as they were worked on with coloured pencil). Embedded in the middle of the sun’s band is a photograph – transcribed in paint – showing the entrance to a burial mound, whose carvings the sun illuminates every autumn and spring equinox. Between these disjunctive styles of depiction, the painting evanesces into a gaping blank in the middle – abstracting us, as did Baer’s earliest work, from the visible or chartable world into a liminal space of limitless potential.
1. Hughes, Ted. Crow Blacker Than Ever, 1970
Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Sword, Orbit, 2014
Gardner, Lisa. Crash & Burn, Headline, 2015
Kellerman, Jonathan. Killer: An Alex Delaware Novel, Headline, 2015
Kellerman, Jonathan. Motive: An Alex Delaware Novel, Headline, 2015
Davis, Lindsay. Enemies at Home, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014
Siger, Jeffrey. Target: Tinos, Poisoned Pen Press, 2012
Leon, Donna. By Its Cover, Cornerstone Digital, 2014
Sherratt, Mel. Follow The Leader, Thomas & Mercer, 2015
Leon, Donna. Uniform Justice, Cornerstone Digital, 2010
Gerritsen, Tess. Die Again, Transworld Digital, 2015
Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice, Orbit, 2013
Naam, Ramez. Nexus, 2015
Flynn, Gillian. Dark Places, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
Stephenson, Neal. Some Remarks, Atlantic Books, 2012
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012
Davis, Lindsay. Saturnalia, Cornerstone Digital, 2011
Leon, Donna. Fatal Remedies, Cornerstone Digital, 2010
Gibson, William. The Peripheral, Penguin, 2014
Stephenson, Neal. The System Of The World, Cornerstone Digital, 2012
Child, Lee. Personal, Transworld Digital, 2014
Reichs, Kathy. Grave Secrets, Cornerstone Digital, 2012
Kellerman, Faye. Murder 101, HarperCollins, 2014
Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm, Sphere, 2014
Leon, Donna. Quietly in Their Sleep, Penguin Books, 2009
Stephenson, Neal. The Confusion, Arrow, 2005
'...And upright Adam
sang upon origin
Casting tomorrow like a thorn
And the midwives of miracle sing...'
'In the name of the lost who glory in
The swinish plains of carrion
Awake no heart
but let it break
Under the burial song
Of the birds of burden
never to awake
Under the night forever falling...' Vision and Prayer, Dylan Thomas (As adapted by Jo Baer)
Jo Baer was born in Seattle, USA in 1929 now lives and works in Amsterdam. Her works are part of various public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate London and the Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main. Her most recent solo shows were at Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven (2009), Secession Vienna (2008), the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Ludwig Museum in Cologne,(2013). She took part in the the 31st São Paulo Biennale and the Busan Biennale in 2012.
James Cahill is a writer and critic based in London and Cambridge.
Supported by Mondriaan Fund and the Dutch Embassy.