I absolutely love work that combines an unexpected element of realism in an otherwise abstract form. Nancy Baker is the queen at that effect. Her intense, gorgeously constructed works surprise and excite the eye, challenging you to question what is painted, printed, hand made versus computer driven imagery fighting for your attention and recognition. You can get lost in her work, enjoying the tiniest of details, mastery of technical skill and intellectual ideas. I hope you find as much adventure and excitement in the act of discovery through her work as I have, enjoy!
You are one of those artists that can do everything from realism in oil to large abstract installations, can you tell us a little about what inspires you to start a work in a particular medium? When beginning a new work, do you choose the subject or the medium first, and how does that inform the rest of the work?
There’s a lot of creative history that drive a new piece; one new idea seems to generate another, and my process wavers between following a series to its completion, and at the same time being aware of fortuitous mistakes. I’m trying to work within the challenge of creating an entire body of work, without becoming a slave to those constraints. I’ve been working in paper exclusively for five years or so; before that I painted in oils on wood panels. To go back to painting was very, very hard. I’ve had to rethink a lot of former intentions. But I am working towards a solo show in a large space, which gives me the opportunity to bump it up and include other media. The subject for both painting and paper constructions are similar; the paper constructions focus on geometry and infrastructure. The paintings refer to the geometric forms that I’ve been inventing, but they inhabit landscapes that are moody. I think of them as strange portraiture, much in the way of George Stubbs and his bizarre animal paintings.
There's an element of discovery and surprise with your work where the audience learns that shapes are hand cut and painted, do you like the audience to discover this on their own? Or do you find that after they read a statement that they need to return and re-look? Either way, there's this relationship of surprise, appreciation and challenging first perceptions with your audience. What's the funniest/best response you've ever gotten when someone discovered the amount of labor in your work?
There’s an old joke about Picasso. Guy is sitting in a bar and Picasso sits down next to him. The guy asks Picasso if he could draw something for him on the back of a napkin for $100. Picasso whips out a pen and draws something in five seconds. The guy is pissed and screams at Picasso, “five seconds for $100?”
Picasso replies, “that drawing took me a lifetime of work”.
The truth is, the art world does not care how long it took you to make a piece of work. I once had this discussion with a gallerist at Mark Moore Gallery in LA. My paintings took a very long time, and I thought I should be compensated for that. The gallerist (who shall remain unnamed), really dealt me quite an ego blow when he told me that he sympathized, but it was irrelevant to the value of art. I guess I knew that already; but rules are for other people. Now, I am seeing this as an interesting liability; time does not make a bad piece of work good. I am trying to consider this problem clearly; does time and process in my work result in a good resolution? Making the production process a secondary feature is probably important. It’s one of the reasons I am incorporating larger, chunkier sculptural pieces in my installations. I’m making these pieces as a response to the finely cut smaller pieces; they are looser, broader, and in a strange way, fraudulent. They are fakes, lightweight, temporary, and seem to push the work in a better direction. There is a weird kind of call and response between these two opposing elements that excites me.
Creating a veil of material with images captured inside that veil is very compelling for me, but there really has to be more to a piece than WOW IT TOOK A LOT OF WORK. I’ve tried to minimize the production time of cutting pieces by having them laser cut. For iterations of the same piece it makes sense. It’s really not very smart or interesting to cut the same piece thousands of times. There is a very meditative quality to the process, but it has become very damaging physically to my hands.
One of the artists that has really intrigued me with his attention to detail is Dubuffet. His black and white works are repositories of obsessive mark making; looking close up the individual elements that create volume and tone are quite shocking. These details are not apparent until you get very close up; and it is a wonderful surprise.
Your work also has the tone of fighting the norm, or the general system of the Art World, you don't like to write statements, you change the "rules" by changing your work, do you consider yourself a rebel? Can you tell us a story of an act of rebellion against the expectations of the Art World or your experiences within it?
I grew up in Brooklyn and my parents were both artists. My Jewish culture demanded an immediate and constant sense of irony, especially after the horrors of WWII. I grew up in the streets of NYC, which required a very strong personal ability to navigate bullies, predators, dangerous situations, insults and the invasion of private spaces. Pushing back was survival. I am a product of this, and most born and bred New Yorkers understand this, unhesitatingly. It is those that have moved here later that don’t understand it. There is no mystery to chutzpah, especially if you are a woman and an artist, and you grew up in Brooklyn before there were helicopter parents.
My mother was an AB EXpainter who was part of those 10th Street Galleries in the Village. My father was a photographer. I grew up in the world of art. Their emotional and intellectual struggles were edifying. It became clear to me that being an artist required a monumental sense of the absurd, and a bottomless pit of self-mockery and the ability to be your own worst critic. This is a very difficult balancing act; having the courage to keep on making art, believing in it, and at the same time, being merciless on your own work. This philosophic juggling of inner directives that are at cross purposes is the crazy dance that artists do. It requires sublimating the ego at very inopportune moments, and then allowing it to rise up again when circumstances demand it. I have survived decades without a moment’s lapse in making work. Through deaths, divorces, parenthood, and all the obstacles and barriers that a lifetime throws across your path. Making art. It is my go to place in time of pain and sadness.
Statements. What artist likes to write them? They are a plague, and a horror. I have written about art, I was an art critic for a newspaper in Raleigh. Writing about others is engaging and enjoyable. Writing about oneself is very difficult. It’s all verbs and no adjectives.
Am I a rebel? Definitely. But most artists are. Acts of rebellion are on a daily basis. IMHO, you cannot do good work if you are not willing to question the status quo. Being uncomfortable is necessary.
At SVA, when I was a Freshman (18), we were asked to send the instructor (Stylianos Gianakos) a present for winter break. My boyfriend and I welded a car alarm in a metal box, with a trip wire that turned on the alarm when removed from the cardboard box, and it could not be turned off. He loved it and I got an A. The story was alive for a long time; graduates repeated the story until it was weirdly mythological.
My sense of humor has saved me on more than one occasion.
To go with that, you also to take on certain social topics a lot as well, and react and respond through your artwork, can you tell us about what you're most upset about and the topic at hand in your work now? Can you tell us your opinions about Art and it's role in social activism in general?
I’m deeply invested in political thought. I am concerned with issues of justice, inequality and ethics. There are times when those themes were important components of my work. I created a series of works on paper that re-imagined corporate logos into a satirical translation of what these companies really did. Currently, the political climate reflects the purest and clearest manifestations of corporate profit, greed and the business desire for political domination and to control the agenda. This is so sickening, and it so obtuse, that activism is the obvious response. Making art about it doesn’t really seem appropriate, now that the ideologues are so transparent in their aspirations.
The Guerilla Girls were a source of inspiration for many of us back in the days of egregious inequity of female representation in galleries and museums. It’s not much better now. I was the co-writer for a blog called Anonymous Female Artist; my handle was Rebel Belle. The blog was very popular, and had quite a following. It was professionally not too great for me at the time, but in retrospect, I am really glad that I did it, and have no regrets for my personal opinions about women in the art world. It served to distill my opinions and strengthen my core beliefs.
Can you tell us a little how text started to come into your work? What role does language play, and how those words influence and guide your audience to the topic of discussion within your work?
Coming up with titles for a new work is sometimes very difficult. I grew up in a time when “sans titolo” and minimal titles like Blue 2, or Yellow 4 were common. That was a big AB EX thing to do. Then, as I came of age, I began searching for the titles of songs that I thought evoked strong references to time and corresponding feelings of those times. I’ve used “You Always Hurt The one You Love, Cry Me A River and a few others. When I began making paper constructions, I continued with words, although now they are used in a more opaque way, with multiple possibilities for interpretation. The title for the piece “Eat Misting”, which I exhibited at ODETTA last year, was reconstructed from the phrase, “Mistakes Were Made”. I liked Eating Mist a lot more.
If you could go back in time, is there any advice you'd give your younger artistic self? And regrets or things you would have done differently?
For all younger artists, myself included, patience and tenacity reaps big rewards. As a much younger artist, I was always driven to make work, but I lacked the confidence to accept the erratic, emotional and frustrating cycles that were so despairing. As an older artist, I can see the path in a much clearer way, especially in terms of assigning importance to the wrong things. It’s a very arduous and frequently painful profession, with wild swings in success and professional rewards. Now I am comforted by the acceptance of the craziness of it all; that sometimes you’re hot, but mostly not, and it doesn’t matter. These constant ups and downs are part of it all, and minimizing the agony over it requires solid personal relationships and the knowledge that so much of it is unpredictable. I’m really good with that now; so much of what we agonize over is really self-harming. I’ve lost friends who were very competitive. What I know now is this; be kind to your friends who are doing well; support and honor them. Your time of success will come too, and you will be so happy to have strong, supportive friendships.
In retrospect, I’ve done a lot of good things. I just didn’t know it at the time. I have no regrets.
I am very, very fortunate to have so many wonderful and supportive relationships with women artists in NY. I didn’t really have that in the South; my personal comportment was a big problem; pushy New Yorker. Now I’m around people who are like me, and my personal interactive style is NORMAL.
On the flip side, what's been your most rewarding experience to date with your career? Do you have a dream or goal(s) for your career that is next on your list to achieve so to speak?
The commission for MTA Arts and Design has been an incredible and wonderful experience. It’s one of those things you wish you could do; especially as an artist born in Brooklyn. Creating new work for two train stations in my home town borough has been a great honor. Future goals are experimenting with different media, and spending some time in interesting residencies. I’m not going to be more specific, because I don’t want to scare myself with goals that are difficult. I just keep going, working hard, minimizing the anxiety.
Do you have any favorite female artists?
Many! Vija Celmins, Pipilotti Rist, Judy Pfaff, Nancy Rubens, Lorna Simpson, Liza Lou, Mickalene Thomas, Petah Coyne, Nan Goldin. And more.
Are there any current or upcoming events that you'd like to share?
I’ve just finished a backdrop for Counterpoint5, a project that Jason Andrew (Norte Maar) and Julia Gleitch had been organizing, which pairs women dancers with women visual artists. The performances were on April 7 – April 9.
In April of 2018, I will be having a solo exhibit at ODETTA Gallery.
And in April of these year, the MTA will install my work at the second train station, Sutter Avenue.
New things will be popping up! Looking forward to the following year.