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Kevin Baker by Daniel Gerwin

DG: Your use of the patterned oilcloth as a foundation offers a variety of interpretive possibilities. To me some of the most interesting layers are the ideas about personal history and memory, and how we sanctify those memories or how they become carriers for our private love, in your case for your mother and her own art that surrounded your childhood. Can you talk about how you first began using oilcloth, how that discovery happened and how you became aware of its importance for your work?

KB: I discovered oilcloth when I was in graduate school. I was previously working on paper, but when I walked into a fabric store and saw the brightly colored oilcloth, I had an immediate response. That response was joy with a dash of sadness. It brought back memories of childhood, family members I had lost, but most of all the fabric simply spoke to me, telling me to use it somehow. I feel that it’s safe to say that most people throughout the world have some type of connection with this fabric. Who hasn't at least once sat at a table covered in this kitschy fabric? It reminds me of picnics, my grandmother's oilcloth-covered lawn furniture, to playing card and dice games on cigarette burned tablecloths, as well as my love of Mexican restaurants and their margaritas! I feel like regardless of one's socioeconomic standing, this material carries the power to connect us all.

DG: Where do you find the oilcloths that you use these days?

KB: It has become harder to find the material lately since my supplier has closed. I find it on the internet, as well as several fabric shops in New York City.

Kevin Baker "Love" 2008

DG: How do you select the cloths? Do you seek out patterns that you think will be useful for the painting, for example the way you use the checkered patterns to emerge through the paint, becomomg leaves or flowers in certain paintings? Or are there other reasons that you choose an oilcloth as a painting candidate? Or do you just have big pile of them and figure out paintings for each as you go along?

KB: I have a pile, and when it comes time to use one I simply grab the one that is screaming for attention.

DG: Your work seems to engage in conversation with other artists who also deal with the possibilities of decoration,rhythm, and natural forms. I'm thinking of Beatriz Milhazes, Fred Tomaselli, and the funny coincidence between your work and the new Charles Ray flower paintings in this year’s Whitney Biennial. A few questions about this: What was your reaction to the Charles Ray flowers in the biennial? Do you see it as kindred work? Why or why not? Have Milhazes or Tomaselli been influential for you?

Kevin Baker "Peacock" 2010

Kevin Baker "Peacock" detail

Charles Ray "Untitled" 2009

KB: My first reaction to Charles Ray's flowers was complete happiness that flowers were in the biennial! I feel like flowers get a bad rep these days. Flowers are glorious people!

I did feel some connection to Ray's floral motifs in that they have similar linear qualities. You can see movement and air in his mark-making, much like my work, as well as a playfulness. Although, I think that our work only has these qualities in common. So, I guess our works are kindred, but distantly. This particular series of works by Ray I feel creates one singular language of mark-making, where as my paintings have many languages unfolding from piece to piece. I never make a painting twice. I see each painting I produce to have different personalities with many layers of history. You can find struggle and ease, flirtations, as well as disregard within each of my pieces. I never know exactly what I am creating when I work on a painting. It is the moments within my personal life that direct my artmaking. If each piece was studied individually, I am sure you could find many clues to my current state.

I do not feel like I have been influenced by Milhazes or Tomaselli. I see why you would say so, but I see their works to be more designed or pre-planned, whereas mine are completely automatic. I was once a violinist for 12 years. When I create I feel as if I am writing music from my heart. My linear plant and animal-like forms act like musical notes or even perhaps my own personal alphabet writing a story, or rather directing the viewer through a symphony of chaos and order.

Kevin Baker "Saline" 2007

Kevin Baker "Miss Baker" 2006

DG: I am struck by your "square within a square" compositions, like Saline from 2007, how the area surrounding the interior square becomes a kind of decorative frame, and how you use that strategy more explicitly in paintings like Miss Baker where you actually stick the finished work in a patterned frame. Can you talk about your interest in the framing device, what it means to you and how you are interested in using it?

KB: There are several framing devices that are used in my work. The two that you mentioned, but don't forget the importance of the sides. The sides of my paintings are often left as bare oilcloth. As you approach a painting, you see how the oilcloth began. The imagery at times creeps from the sides onto the front surface, engaging the sides and creating the perception of another type of space or reality.

When I have used the "square within a square" format, my intention was to first catch the attention of the viewer by giving an immediate graphic shape. Within the frame area I leave little oilcloth exposed, but the center square reveals more. It acts somewhat like a bulls-eye, or an introduction to looking through a window. So the "square within a square" pieces actually have 3 separate realities: the raw sides, the frame, and the window.

What are frames used for, anyway? They grab attention, they create a focus, and sometimes give artwork the air of importance. I use the frame for all of these reasons. In Mrs. Baker, I used that particular frame because I found the frame in my great grandmother’s basement after she passed away. I dedicated that painting to her, for her love for life and flowers.

DG: Your paintings all kind of swim with a sensual fecundity, seeming to celebrate that quality in humans, art, and the natural world. With regard to nature, it's interesting to see this approach in the midst of a period where on the one hand people are "rediscovering" the importance of nature (resurgence of gardening, organic food, etc.) but on the other hand we are destroying the earth faster than ever. Is that something you are thinking about?

KB: I most definitely think about all these things! I'm glad you said this. I have always been in love with plants and animals, or rather "the Earth"! I have felt spiritually connected to all aspects of the earth since I was a small child. I have a great love of gardening with native plants, as well as creating water gardens with plant and animal life. We are destroying the earth, and I'm afraid that it may be too late to save it.

Especially at this time with all the natural disasters! I've always said that my paintings are like if the world flooded, but my fear is that this might actually happen. At least my tablecloth materials will never pollute the earth, they have been recycled into something I hope will be around forever.

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Austin Eddy

With the high spirits and prolific outpouring of youth, Austin Eddy assembles antic interiors buzzing with saturated, high-key color and giddy mark-making. These paintings are packed to the gills with pattern and decorative detail. Even Eddy’s omnipresent armchairs do not appear inviting; they are rather like portraits of gregarious loud talkers – charming but right up in your face.

The fun in Eddy’s work is the straightforward celebration of painting itself, its opportunities for overstimulation and material improvisation. His imaginary interiors serve as armatures for engineered collisions of color, form, and surface. His chairs are often made of two off-kilter squares, one for the back and one for the butt. These supports play off the rectangular support of the canvas to further subdivide the surface of the painting. Eddy makes similar use of walls, stairs, rugs and coffee-tables: all are reduced to patterned subdivisions of the rectangular surface, with plants in curling counterpoint.

These paintings seem to be crafted with and for enjoyment. Looking at the seats Eddy depicts, one is reminded of Matisse’s well-known remark that he envisions his paintings as “a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Matisse is an obvious source for Eddy, and just as Matisse’s paintings defied expectations, Eddy’s well-appointed salons and summer patios are not the ideal places to go if you’re looking for a quiet moment. These paintings ask us to bring a case of beer and join the party.

Profile by Daniel Gerwin

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Kevin Baker

The paintings of Kevin Baker swim with a highly ornamented mixture of kitsch and refinement. Baker works on oilcloth, the kind you might have used over a picnic table in the park last weekend. The oilcloth is left bare on the sides of the stretchers, allowing the viewer to see the original imagery or pattern and find its traces in the final painting. Visual elements of the oilcloth are absorbed or reinterpreted into a richly colored lexicon of pattern, fruit, and flowers. Everything seems to float in an aqueous world, an undersea jungle whose fecundity is on overdrive.

There is a peculiar nostalgia in Baker’s work. The paintings are reminiscent of the wallpaper in an archetypical country matriarch’s home, and from the saturated colors Baker often deploys I’d say we are visiting her on a hot summer day. The oilcloth itself had its heyday in 1950’s America, reinforcing this sense of longing for things gone by. But this is not a dusty world of memory; the visual elements are in constant rhythmic motion and everything is very much alive.

Baker’s paintings call to mind Asian painted screens as well as the thick jungles of Henri Rousseau. All share an intense stylization of natural forms, with the effect of drawing out our love for nature while simultaneously distancing us from the natural. We all know that one day we will be left with nothing but memories of our parents and grandparents. As humanity inflicts repeated disasters on the earth, one wonders whether plastic flowers will eventually be all that remain of the gardens our forebears tended so lovingly.

Image: Lugano, Kevin Baker

Profile by Daniel Gerwin

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Tom Costa

Bits of siding, brick, and glass hang from teetering structures in Tom Costa’s expertly rendered paintings of ruined houses. He portrays only facades, as if to say that there was never more than appearance, like a wild west movie set. The structures are isolated, apparently built far from other human habitation. Their environments seem more symbolic than real, blending the imaginary geographies and staged lighting of renaissance portraiture with the tapered shapes of medieval altarpieces. It is perhaps this symbolic quality that gives Costa’s structures their density, the sense that much thought and feeling has been boiled down to give these images their power. If the shaped canvases are reminiscent of icons, then these are icons in reverse: reverently painted figures of neglect and dissolution. The architectural skeletons suggest the decay of the middle class American Dream, the surrounding landscape preparing to revert to its condition before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. In Swiss Cheese (2008), we look through the deteriorated A-frame to city lights twinkling in a distant valley, hinting that not everyone’s home shares the same fate.

Costa’s choice to portray only the facade of each structure is both odd and purposeful. One cannot look at these remains without noticing the ruined grids, imaginary Mondrians in disrepair. To what end is our attention called to the picture plane and the grid that subdivides it? Is Costa making a point about the collapse of traditional pictorial structures, suggesting they have become obsolete? If so, his use of an old-school, illusionistic oil technique becomes an interesting contradiction. Perhaps he seeks to set up a squat in the gutted remains of these methods and make his home for as long as possible. Or perhaps Costa aims to spark a phoenix-like rebirth, creating new life from the rubble. As long as he continues to generate interesting questions, it would seem Costa is on solid ground.

Profile by Daniel Gerwin

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