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On Beauty: the Paintings of Brett Baker

by Jennifer Samet

Your will is practical, is truthful, is real – but it is not beautiful…If you apply yourself in any way whatsoever, your application is not beautiful…But there is something else you can do. You can suspend something in such a way that it doesn’t have movement, motion, or time…It is just that one act, the act to save yourself from falling, that in some way can be beautiful.
–Milton Resnick

Brett Baker moved, in 2003, from a huge studio upstate to a tiny New York City apartment. He had made large-scale paintings and installations before beginning this body of work, which ranges from small to miniature in size. He still wanted to make large paintings, but couldn’t, until it occurred to him to attempt making “big” small paintings. Duration replaced size – he resolved to work on them until they lived up to the larger works.

They are dense, thick with years of oil paint, abstract matrixes of interlocking marks, rows of vertical and diagonal dashes. The color chords are not traditionally lush or beautiful. They are olive greens, reddish-browns, dark blues and purple – but somehow never murky. We see beauty more than the weight of application. We do not sink into these paintings: the sensation comes off from the surface. It is this quality that is central to Baker’s work: the suspension.

In general, Baker’s work engages the issue of reversing our natural expectations. Baker looked for his mural size paintings to create intimate spaces and have the approachability of the work on an easel. Similarly, he plays with the boundaries and crossover between object (sculpture) and painting. The paintings that comprised his installations were approached from behind, so that you saw the supports before their monochromatic surfaces.

Brett Baker, Sisyphus (After Camus)
Brett Baker, Sisyphus (after Camus), 2009 – 2011, oil on canvas, 6 x 6 inches

In these small paintings, Baker uses little to no medium, so that we are literally presented with full-bodied layers of oil color. They beg for touch — open invitations to test whether the accumulations of paint could ever dry. Medium is the literal way to suspend paint, color, to let it float, but this would be too easy. Baker’s work calls to mind the late paintings of Milton Resnick: those dark, thick surfaces, monochromatic slabs. They reverberate as complete statements, rather than being about work or accumulation. In a 1970 talk, “On Beauty,” Resnick posited that beauty only comes into play at that moment of suspension, the letting go of control, the point of knowing nothing. It is a moment that cannot be replicated in a rational way. It is the moment when the painting works on the artist more than the artist approaches the canvas. And yet, we are not exempt from doing something – Resnick says that the whiteness of the canvas is the false support, the false light.

Baker talks about duration as a way to make the paintings big, but he also admits to me “the real reason I work so long is that it takes that long for me to let go.” He references Camus’s essay in the 6 x 6 inch painting Sisyphus – one that is especially unrelenting in its mustard-browns, greens and grays, with just two dashes of violet. It is this absurdity (and the beauty) of being happy—suspended—in this endless pursuit of doing and not-doing that appeals to Baker, and where his paintings live – resonance overtaking endurance.

Jennifer Samet, Ph.D.
is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer