That Jo Baer has thought long and hard about the nature of painting is clear. In her early (1960s-70s) radically minimal and superbly elegant paintings, which are defined by their empty, glowing white centers edged by simple bands of black and another thin line of color, she was attempting to expunge all hierarchy, ambiguity, and illusion from her work. Apparently she got it out of her system, because her paintings since then are chock full of images and depend almost entirely on implied, and very obscure, narrative. The four paintings shown at Alexander Gray were from 1990, 1991, 2000 and 2001, and in contrast to her early paintings where the image mimics the stretcher support underneath, these are done in oil on canvases that are simply tacked to the wall. This contributes to the sense of being unfinished, almost temporary, and it's possible Baer employs this device, successfully or not, in an attempt to separate her work from the painting tradition as we know it. Indeed, these are more like sketches in that she's not exploring paint's possibilities as an expressive medium, but using it as one might use drawing to delineate specific images that we take to be symbolic—although symbolic of what is never made clear.
The paintings from the nineties are pale and wispy like the illustrations of William Blake—with good reason, since Baer has named one Of a Fearful Symmetry (Bound Hand and Foot) in direct reference to a famous phrase in Blake's poetry. In the haze, blurry figures become at once figure and ground, appearing and disappearing like apparitions—a wraith-like woman, the arms and hands of a man in a jacket, the disembodied legs of someone in riding boots—and are interspersed with animals that might be intended to be deer but look more like demonic dogs with horns. Outlined handprints, reminiscent of those in ancient cave paintings, are scattered over all. The other painting from the nineties, At the Back of the North Wind, is named after a Victorian children's book in which the wind is portrayed as a sentient being who is alternately beneficent and malevolent. The figures here include a hanging man, a deer leaping out of the picture frame, and a majestic character with open hands who advances toward us, dreamlike and macabre.
The more recent paintings are harder, in all senses of the word—harder to parse, and harder in terms of line and big chunks of color. Where the former paintings are ethereal, these are aggressive, especially, as one can imagine from the title,Shrine of the Piggies (The Pigs Hog itAll and Defacate (sic) and Piss on Where From They Get It and With Whom They Will not Share. That's It). While people and animals are absent, outlines of what one deduces to be male genitalia overlay a painting of a men's room where the urinal, with its vaguely cross-like pipes, appears as a shrine. The fourth painting, Testament of the Powers That Be (Where Trees Turn to Sand, Residual Colours Stain the Land) is a strange confluence of mountains, flowers, fissures, and roots that forms a blocky landscape. Although Baer's paintings—from painting application to heavy-handed symbolism—are clumsy in many ways, the fiercely passionate intention behind them is so palpable that it overrides all other considerations.
Jo Baer at Alexander Gray
Jo Baer at Alexander Gray
Art in America