"Second Thoughts of a Human Being"

An Exhibition of Visual Books & Assorted Oddities

New England School of Art and Design

October 2000

Originally Published in ARTSmedia, Boston, October 2000

Since 1969, when she first arrived in Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, Susan Baker has created pictorially simple, psychologically complex paintings, sculpture, installations, and books grounded in personal experience. The exhibit opening September 25 at the New England School of Design is a selected retrospective, including work from the entire span of Baker's thirty-year career. Baker is probably best known for the cartoonish pâpier maché sculptures and intensely colored, high contrast, flat figured paintings offering her irreverent take on hallowed history, popular culture, and American politics, or the mythical characters of the art and literary world, not of few of them conducting their mayhem and misadventures in Provincetown in the 60's and 70's. There are the wall piece Man Ray and Woman Ray, Baker's first pâper maché sculpture; Zoomertiti - dog as African Queen; The Shrine - a large floor piece that makes me think of Gregory Gillespie, but less mysterious and more upbeat.

But often as not, in the early work, the subject matter is Baker herself - her early pothead phase, her body (Waiting for My Breasts, early 70's), her marriage, motherhood, her rotating obsessions, her dog Zoomer. A friend describes Baker's humor as twisted. I think of a small, boldly gestural, black and white drawing from the early 80's of a mother nursing an infant. She's rearing back in horror from his open mouth, a row of sharp teeth poised to clamp. Believe me, I can relate. It's funny now. With a strong, simple, direct visual language, the work reveals the truth - the absurdity, the stupidity, even the cruelty, of our nature, but without virulence. Somehow, Baker makes it possible for us to accept our own defects and foibles and sloppy sentiments; for the work holds an inherent, reserved compassion, a tone of fondness that brings one into the human community.

From the beginning, Baker combined painting and sculpture - the painted pâpier maché sculpture, the paintings on canvas in elaborate, sculptured frames - and both writing and image in her work. In the mid-80's, Baker began making one-of-a-kind artist's books. Three of these fabulously constructed early books are included in the exhibit. Here, too, we find quirky combinations of words, painting, and sculpture - for these books have hidden pockets and foldouts and gizmos that make reading them a physical adventure. Two recent and highly successful books, The History of Provincetown and Provincetown Dogs, are conventionally published.

In the late 80's, Baker began painting landscapes. She had always wanted to do it, but "didn't know how." She began to study the work of Mary Hackett, and it brought about a change of thinking about making art. "It made me look at things differently, to really look at nature. I started going out every day, painting landscapes, practicing." Then, in 1990, Baker's family traveled to Italy (She had spent a year studying there, right out of RISD in 1968.)


"During that trip, I did a lot of painting on site. And at the same time, I was writing little travel stories, travel memoirs." She made 30 Venetian Church paintings. Some of these, pâpier maché gargoyles attached to their frames, are included in the exhibition. These paintings employ a muted, old world palette, greater figurative detail, and a more traditional depth of perspective. For the first time, there is serious attention to light. There are yearly trips now to Europe, and afterwards, home again, Baker "can't wait to get into the studio and paint all winter like a mad woman."

One fine thing about the retrospective exhibit is that it gives the viewer the opportunity to observe the path of the artist's career - both the development of technical process and the obsessions that compel the artist forward. Baker sees things we wouldn't see; she says things we might not dare; she's tracking the story with the persistence of a hound. Although her spirit is definitely akin to that of Red Grooms and Claes Oldenburg, Baker is more interested in revealing the story than in making it happen "on stage." We as viewers are brought closer, into her centrifugally wandering consciousness.

Baker gets up at 3 AM and reads Proust. She travels to France. She visits the Norman churches that Proust loved. She paints those churches in tightly compressed landscapes in a style clearly influenced by Mary Hackett. She takes pictures of the paintings and photocopies them. Then, she paints the photocopies. She puts them together in a book, including quotes from Proust. (Following Proust will be published this fall by University Press of New England.) Yet, she says, "It's not about Proust; it's about standing where he stood." While she was following Proust, she ran across Napoleon, or rather, a statue of Napoleon's second in command Marshall Ney, who led the retreat from Moscow. She'd never heard of Ney. The statue was visible from her hotel room. Now she wants to start in Moscow and paint Ney's retreat to Paris.

Before long we realize that life and art have truly merged. Yes, the subject is still Susan Baker, but her scope has widened into the world. We're taken on her adventure. The painting has evolved more in terms of light than drama. It has become compositionally more complex, psychologically more clear. Give yourself plenty of time to view this exhibit. "Second Thoughts of a Human Being" offers a rich, integrated body of work and a very satisfying sojourn.

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved