Studio Visit: The resalvaged ecosystems of Mara Baker

April 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Mara Baker is a self-described student of deterioration and reside and their roles in different modes of aesthetic production. She’s trained in both painting (SAIC) and fiber arts (Cranbrook), and the interplay between the two fields formally drives much of her work, particularly the paintings comprising her contribution to the the upcoming SideCar exhibition Just Like All Those Times Tomorrow (May 4-June 1). The group show, which combines new paintings from Baker with collaborative ceramic work by Nathan Tonning and Amanda Wong, is focused explicitly on artistic use of discarded materials and Romantic and modern conceptions of ruins.

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Real and Fake Things II, various foams, found residue, and acrylic, 2012

Baker has a deep and sustained interest in these thematics, but it’s her obsession with systems– self-contained, breaking down, sustainable— and her interest in the history of her materials that consistently draws me to her work, rather than just her interest in debris as medium. For example, in a show this fall for which she and I wrote a collaborative zine-essay, Baker made tiny, exquisite collages composed of album cover remnants from a pile of records she found in a warehouse where she was installing another show created from another group of found objects. Baker is now experimenting  with creating sound files created from playing the broken records, combining them in auditory collages. The reiterations of her systems play with notions of ecological sustainability, creative destruction, and the role of the artist in keeping material animate past its intended lifespan.

But where her work has often been performative and installation-based, Baker has firmly moved this year into making paintings, and her current “residue” work, which will be the basis for the SideCar show, and which is composed entirely of past work–Baker is decidedly unromantic about breaking down and sacrificing previous projects for the sake of experimentation– is unquestionably taking up painting’s problematics.

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Still Life With Apples, foam, carboard, acrylic and other found residues on canvas, 2013

In the “residue” series, spray paint and glass create transparent layers that give recycled materials “a new history,” Baker says, “creating a sense of space without building up.” She’s deeply interested in the interplay between the real and the representational in mixed-media work, and the paintings often employ representational images like blurred photographs that formally reference abstract elements. Where previous two dimensional work has been sculptural in its formal approach, she finds such materials can create space and depth without losing the surface of the picture plane. “Still, I’m most successful when piling, wrapping, and removing something.” She points out a few paintings that have abstract white space, either scraped off or added to the top of her layered images—what Baker calls “the conceal, something underneath you can’t see” that creates somewhat “quieter objects.”

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All Of The Above, cardboard, plexi, acrylic and other found residues on canvas, 2012

The removal of materials, particularly through scraping, also takes up Baker’s long-term interest in information and entropy. Removing parts of the picture  is a canceling out of information, masking out particular places and forcing focus on others. It’s also a terrifying part of the process. “Predictability isn’t good for me,” she explains, showing me photographs of earlier versions of paintings that felt to her overworked. Most of the failed paintings ended up as raw material, torn up in careful piles in her studio, to be utilized, along with spray-painted tarp from past projects, in new distillations. Being able to find something and being able to save everything border on obsessions, and Baker’s own memory forms yet another archive. At one point she shows me a multicolor map of the approximate locations of oil spills that struck her years ago; many such images form a latent visual vocabulary in her head while she works. Baker’s studio thus forms a kind of ecosystem in and of itself. “When I first started making work, my paintings were about expressing and working with family history as material,” Baker muses, “but now I feel that way about the iterations of my work.”

The paintings, too, often carry the memory of previous performative installations about risk and disintegration; the black straps holding three layers of glass and painted linen together keep one painting on the wall as precariously as Baker’s 2008 installation “Internal Weather,” which pumped tinctures of acrylic paint through plastic drinking straws until they exploded. Some of that four year old residue of painting and soap lives as colored stains in the new “little worlds” of her current work. But when I ask her about recreating the past, Baker draws a firm line: “You can’t just recreate anything. You have to set up particular conditions for it to happen.”

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Fake and Real Things, III, plastic, foam, found residues and acrylic on canvas, 2013

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