Light Playing on Polyvinyl Chloride

Last week, Eric and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Unfortunately, a lot of the museum’s American art was not open for viewing, due to the construction of a new wing scheduled to open next month.  But Eric and I hit up all the European galleries, as well as a few of the special exhibitions, like Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 and Millet and Rural France.  I plan on going back November 20 for the museum’s Community Open House so that I can look through the museum’s other collections.

Now, I love art museums—so many people and landscapes and ideas depicted in different mediums and colors and styles.  I love all the different ways there are to represent reality, or to reshape it, distort it, or reject it, even.  I also love art for its evocative powers, for its ability to conjure up memories and mental associations and emotions.  And also simply for its ability to display beauty.  Museum-going is always an overwhelming experience, precisely because there is so much substance to be seen and experienced.  So as not to completely stress yourself, there are those pieces you just kind of brush by with a polite, obligatory glance (you know what you like, what captivates you, so you’re allowed to be an instant judge), and then there are those pieces that stop you in your tracks and compel you to stare at them and to contemplate them, or to simply enjoy them, for minutes on end.  And then you leave the museum with their impression on your mind.

There were several pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts that elicited the latter reaction in me.  Among them were the four paintings from the Kristin Baker: New Paintings exhibition.  I’m usually not a big fan of modern art, but these paintings really took me in, not necessarily because of their depth of meaning or nuance (those things are rarely what attract us immediately, anyway), but because of their explosiveness.  They convey a strong sense of power and movement which I find intriguing.  That, and I really love the color combinations!

In Full Dawn Parallax, Baker experiments with the effects created by the interaction of natural and artificial light on a transparent surface and that light’s seeming shift when viewed from various angles and distances.  The word “parallax” refers to a perceived shift in position of a celestial body, like a sun, when seen from two different points.  The painting captures the sunlight from the glass ceiling of the gallery and the glow from the room’s incandescent bulbs, becoming a representation of light’s absorption, deflection, and refraction.  As the viewer’s vantage point shifts—from far away, to up close, to the side, to the escalator above—light continues its play.  (That flash of light in the upper left-hand corner is not from my camera; it is produced by the interaction of the sun from above with the paint on the PVC.)

Baker works on a large scale with a distinctive technique. She doesn’t use brushes, oil paints, or canvases; instead, she uses squeegees and scrapers to slide acrylic paint across PVC or acrylic sheets.  She creates shapes by outlining areas with tape, smearing transparent or opaque mixes of paint, and peeling the tape edges away.

One thing I admire about (most) visual artists of the modern period is their spirit of experimentalism.  While I cannot always admire the finished product of their artistic experiments, I can admire the gutsiness of their attempts.  A lot of people fail to see the point of modern art.  (“My two-year-old could make something like that!”, “That just looks like a bunch of spilled paint!”, “It has no order or design or intention behind it!”)  Without launching into a full discussion on the value of abstract art, I would like to point out that in addition to being creative and new, a lot of modern art forces on us the question of, “What is art?”  What are the appropriate materials to use, what are the appropriate subjects to depict?  What is the purpose of making art?  And also, how is art made?

As for Kristin Baker, I admire both the conception and execution of her art—the pieces themselves and the rationale behind them.  I like how she emphasizes the materiality of paint by applying it thickly, making it tactile, almost sculptural.  She emphasizes the process of painting as well.  “I like there to be room for accident and for uncontrolled things to happen with the paint,” Baker said in a 2004 interview with Vogue.  Her artistic commitment to the unexpected stems from her love of automobile racing, which is characterized by speed, adventure, intensity, and thrill.  In her works, Baker likes to explore the connection between painting and automobile racing, both of which involve a combination of calculation and risk, anxiety and euphoria, mastery and failure.  Although she has moved away from overt references to car racing in her works, she continues to capture the sense of movement and drama characteristic of the sport.

In the MFA exhibition piece Within Refraction

… Baker depicts the movement and drama of light as it is processed and compressed into a photographic image.  The accompanying museum plaque reads:  “[Baker’s] image could be many spaces collapsed onto each other:  the distant sight through the viewfinder crosshairs, the inside of a camera chamber flipping light onto a film, the black-and-white sheen of a gelatin silver print, or any combination of deep and flat perspectives.”  Refraction has to do with the bending of a light ray as it enters a medium, such as glass, that slows down its speed.  Through this painting, Baker emphasizes the beauty and artfulness of this common scientific phenomenon and one of its technological applications, as well as the complex character of light itself.  She reminds us of the process of perceiving.  Whether we’re viewing an object indirectly through a camera lens or directly through our eye’s own inbuilt lens system, that object comes to us only after being recreated by the sophisticated redirection and processing of light rays, made possible by various mechanisms.

Art and beauty always point me to God, enhance my awe of Him, and Within Refraction is no exception.  Camera lenses are pretty amazing in their design and capabilities, but the lens of the human eye is infinitely more amazing.  Its purpose is to help refract light so that an image can be formed on the retina.  God made the lens pliable so that it can change its curvature to focus on objects at different distances.  (This process is called accommodation.)  How perfectly God designed the eye!  He took such care, such precision, to enable us to see and interpret visual stimuli.  He created a net of vessels to nourish the lens.  He created structural proteins to increase the lens’s refractive index while not obstructing light.  The cornea, too, refracts light, and with even greater power than the lens.  It consists of five layers but is only half a millimeter thick.  Now that’s some intricate handiwork!  God is beautiful in His precision.  Within Refraction reminds me of God’s hand in science, of His creativity and intelligence of design.

Baker’s other two works on display at the MFA are Matter Fracture and Rime Infinity.  But I’d like to post a few of her earlier works instead.  The following two Baker pieces illustrate more explicitly her love of auto racing.  Baker says that the aspect of car racing that inspires her artistically is its “spectacle of catastrophe and drama.”  Below, line and color collide at full impact and are blown apart, sending vibrant shards hurtling through space.

Washzert Suisse










Sturm und Drang








Baker is also interested in redepicting some of art history’s most famous evocations of disasters, natural and manmade.  Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa…

is reinterpreted thusly, and retitled Raft of Perseus:


J. M. W. Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

… becomes Wind Over Matter:










And finally, because of my love of literature and landscape…

Camelot Bluff

What a beautiful abstraction of King Arthur’s dwelling place!

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