Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Uncanny Kingdom: The Enigmatic Art of Mowry Baden

Marsupial, 2013, by Mowry Baden. (Steel aluminum fabric rubber. Image: VAG)

Mowry Baden, curated by Grant Arnold, Vancouver Art Gallery: March 9-June 9, 2019

Ever since the French invented a mechanical device called the camera in about 1840, visual artists have been liberated from the tyranny of mere pictorial representation. Likewise, sculptors, who are best described as making three-dimensional drawings in space, have been offered the authority to leave behind the pedestal in favour of incorporating everyday life into their tableaux. And no one has taken that liberty of expression to heart with as much consistent passion and creative commitment as Mowry Baden, originally from Los Angeles but since 1971 a resident of Victoria, British Columbia, from where a steady stream of emotionally compelling and intellectually rigorous works have issued.

Having decided that by the end of the '60s “painting seemed all used up,” Baden's self-stated strategy was as simple as it was ambitious: provoking a perceptual crisis in the viewer through the manifestation of constructed environments, or “envelope spaces,” which invite us to experience kinesthesia, the sensory awareness of position and movement most often contained in task-oriented and body-centred physical settings. This serious form of play is encapsulated in its earliest stages in the 1970 floor-mounted piece called Untitled (Seatbelt), which is just what it says: an excessively long looped seatbelt bolted in three places to the floor and permitting interactive but non-utilitarian use.

The result is a kind of physical calligraphy whose poetry is hard to describe, with an ever-shifting graphic placement depending on each visitor’s chance re-arrangement and resulting in a palpable haptic haiku written on the museum floor. Basically the entire architectural ground has become his conceptual pedestal. The rest of this career-length retrospective of the Governor Award-winning mixed-media artist is just as cheeky and engaging, a living demonstration of how the basic definition of what an art object is and what it’s supposed to do underwent a drastic upheaval in the post- photography era, culminating in the ascent and supremacy of abstraction in all forms.

The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition of fifteen sculptural pieces, as well as journal drawings and an archive of public art projects, was a masterful crash course in the efficacy of Jules Michelet’s nearly mystical observation that each epoch dreams the one to follow and creates it in dreams. It showed just how far a liberated artist can go once technology sets him or her free, and in Baden’s case it also celebrated his legitimate allegiance to major international art movements such as Fluxus, assemblage, and art povera, through the elevation of quotidian objects far above their usual thing status.

A perfectly curated coss-section of Baden’s often whimsical and sardonic sculptural assemblages, the eponymous Mowry Baden, was an ideal but not idealistic show perfectly suited to our own epoch. Basically, the trajectory from the strictures of vertiginous modernity to the open-ended ambiguities of the postmodern realm are charted almost cartographically in the creative arc of Baden’s work from the mid-'60s up to the present. Art history itself, in many ways, arrives after its feverish marathon of shifting meanings into the waiting arms of this West Coast tactician of irony.

Cheap Sleeps Columbine,1994. (Mattress boxspring, pillow fabric, wood, mirror. Image: VAG)

His many oneiric sculptural objects, often splendidly tongue-in-cheek re-configurations of engineering poetry and mechanical theatre, almost always relate to or involve collisions of everyday things with a surreal narrative which is usually perceptible to the sense of touch. Pieces such as the superbly chilling Cheap Sleeps Columbine (1994), with its mandala of mattresses, box springs and mirrors, as well as one of my favourites from the survey show, Marsupial (2013), with its spooky wheelbarrow and cage-like enclosure for a human bearer, are definitely canny testaments to the uncanny kingdom we all occupy in this disturbing century.

Cézanne, who practically invented pictorial modernism, once remarked, referring to his own late visionary evocations of nature in oil, “The landscape thinks itself in me, I am its consciousness.” And while strolling like a psychic flâneur through the calm splendour of Baden’s post-industrial mystery-objects, I was struck by the potential to characterize them in a way that echoed but far outdid Cézanne: “The machine thinks itself in us, we are its consciousness.” If art history is a relay race (which it must be) with individual artists passing the baton from one to the next, then Baden has grabbed Cézanne’s baton and run right off the racetrack with it.

Baden’s charming and confounding works, especially a trio of rubber and stainless-steel sculptures such as Braille (2016), Punched and Grilled (2015) and Tachycardia (2016), quite literally embody and personify the character of what Walter Benjamin called the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as well as the vivid personality of a dynamic which that press agent for the future, Siegfried Gideon, accurately declared as mechanization takes command. They are engineered dream objects come to life: emblems of an industrial domain suddenly rendered mute of customary meaning.

Tachyardia, 2016. (Rubber and steel. Image: VAG)

But he is not all about just puns or bemusement; his work is also about suspended satisfaction, anxious anticipation, delayed gratification, and most especially unfulfilled expectations. He often addresses important aesthetic issues such the physical embodiment of spirit through sculpture and its discomforts through thought. Such a piece is his Rubber Thistle (2013), with three interlocked warehouse pushcarts which can be moved in circles but not utilized practically.

Baden explores polarities of life and death, as well as the dualities of waking and dreaming, through the strange affinity that inherently exists between his uncanny engineering effigies in a museum and his clever disruptions of aesthetic representation embedded in certain radical art traditions. Indeed, his pieces can be seen both as a source of macabre spectacle and educational entertainment, via the image of a site which copies life, but also as a territory which negotiates the development of unsettling new genres of representation.

As this gifted senior artist so ably illustrates, the sculptural image itself is deeply wedded to the living human body in motion and at rest, but it is also a passage haunted by stillness and absence, as exemplified clearly by the obscure objects of desire so effectively examined in this retrospective installation. Economy of means, complexity of meaning: few artists employ dislocation as a strategic tool to elicit both empathy and jamais vu quite as powerfully as Mowry Baden.

This article also appeared in the magazine Vie des Arts. 

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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