Ghosts, Mythology, and Painting: A Chat With Carl Baratta

October 8, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by  Kevin Blake

Carl Baratta ‘Draw a Circle Around the Sun’ 2013

As his upcoming show at Sidecar Gallery in Hammond, Indiana approaches, Carl Baratta is poised for a timely event that will delve into the world of ghosts and mythology–subjects in which he is well versed. From his home base, Baratta builds on a legend of narrative-based painting in Chicago, and lends insight as to how that structure is the driving force of his work.

Kevin Blake: I’d like to start by asking about your upcoming exhibition “Ghosts Don’t Burn.”  You are showing with another artist, Zack Wirsum, and the two of you seem to have some interesting parallels in your work. Can you talk about the title of the exhibition and how it reflects the works that will be on display?

Carl Baratta: ‘Ghosts Don’t Burn’ is curated by Lucas Bucholtz and in addition to Zach Wirsum, the artists Lauren Ball, Mindy Rose Schwartz, Nathan Carder, Mariano Chavez, Karolina Gnatowski, Michael Kaysen, and Pedro Munoz will have work on the second floor.

Originally, the show centered around Gustav Flaubert’s ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ and Ivan Albright’s painting of the same name and myth. Since then a lot of the themes have evolved for us and the Temptation of St. Anthony is more of a departure point for the actual show.

We chose the title for the show because it’s open to interpretation. Since this show is a collaboration between Luca, Zach and myself, we all agree it makes us think of how ghosts are emotionally tied to the things that they love and how one deals with this burden. Also the title is a fact. Ghosts don’t burn. Try it. It’s impossible.

Both Zach and I use narrative as an organizing structure in our work and we both seem to pick haunting moments with an unsettling relationship between shifting sometimes nightmarish landscapes and figures in duress. We both draw a lot of inspiration from different mythical/ art historical sources as well. For me, this is about caring for what you love the most, which is the art making version of being haunted.

Carl Baratta ‘A Wind Night, A Wolf Night 2’ 2013

KB:  Do you see a direct correlation between the evolution of the show’s undercurrents and the fact that you are using the narrative form as the ‘organizing structure’ in your work? Does that structure require flexibility and a willingness to change gears, so to speak?

CB: In this case yes! Not always though. Depending on how the myth is used it can be pretty strict in terms of what imagery/ spacial configuration goes in and what stays out. Since this particular story is about hallucinating and being tempted by everything it’s much more flexible and allows for the evolution of ideas.

It’s a similar flexibility Bosch was drawn to when depicting a Christian Hell or Heaven. Basically it’s an arena or stage where anything can happen under a very broad header. So really obvious imagery that everyone understands symbolically is limited but stream of conscious imagery can get a free pass, but just because stream of consciousness gets to be fancy free doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Another important aspect to understand about organizing imagery through myths is deciding on which moments are being depicted. For Bosch, it’s an eternal moment during somewhere in the middle of all the action narratively speaking. Everything is going on at the same time and fixed. So as a viewer you can look at everything at your leisure.

But you can pick before or after as well. A good example is Goya’s ‘Witches Sabbath’ for depicting after. Whatever the goat headed guy just said scared the crowd but as a viewer you come in right after he spoke. What did he say that would scare everyone so much? We’ll never know.

Instead of depicting during an action where you can leisurely look and see everything happening, depicting afterward, in this case, lends some drama to the moment because as a viewer you will never know what you missed. As an artist, understanding which moment is best depicted for what you want to do, gives a bunch of freedom to the most stringent of narratives.

KB: So, as an artist using myths as a departure point, when do you depart? At what point does the paint dictate the outcome? It seems to me that your paintings are as much in dialogue with the painting language as they are with the language of mythology. Your work, at times, reminds me of David Hockney’s landscapes of the early 90’s in your mark-making strategies and it seems that you allow yourself enough intuitive moments to keep the paintings fresh and unaffected by a rigid narrative structure.

David Hockney ‘Twenty-Four’ 1992

CB: Sometimes I will set up vignettes and each area has literally big spaces between events that I leave open so it stays responsive when I get into color. Other times I’ll take several images of paintings and want different aspects of each and in order to do so I have to have intermediary mark making that is totally different than what I’m drawing inspiration from.

I really love the colored mark making of David Hockney’s landscapes in the 90’s actually. To be honest, when I first saw them back then I didn’t really get those crazy vibrating color paintings. Luckily I got to see a Van Gogh retrospect of his black and white landscape drawings. That was one of the missing pieces to the puzzle and helped put Hockney’s color landscapes in perspective. The light and temperature of as well as Hockney’s mark making was too much to see first. I guess seeing landscapes stripped down to bare bones helped me wrap my mind around the Hockney stuff.

It wasn’t until I saw how Moghul painters used pattern and how Fauvist painters used color as light that I could even attempt to use it though. But for some reason those fit into place for me. I want them otherworldly but not so alien that it stops a viewer from entering them and getting lost.

KB:  A couple of your paintings seemed to me to operate at the edge of abstraction. To be clear, in some of the paintings, the landscape and the figures within it are not as concrete or traditionally composed (a painting like ‘Double’s Double 2’ comes to mind), and it is in these moments that the narrative seems secondary to paint, and for me, that is exciting. Can you talk about how you make that assessment–what sort of limits exist for the viewer’s ability to digest your work? Is abstraction/representation the difference for the viewer? Is abstraction the ghost in the room for you?

Carl Baratta ‘Doubles Double 2’ 2013

CB: I was trained initially as an abstract artist. It’s kind of weird because traditionally an art student gets trained in figurative stuff and then they are allowed to meander into other modes of painting. In undergrad, I had a bunch of former students of NYC AbEx painters as my professors (students of Al Held for example). The figurative painters I did end up taking taught me how to find and extrapolate forms from what was around me. So basically literal abstraction.

The work I’m doing now is me backing out of pure abstraction and color field painting into something more figurative. Navigating between these two things is a major theme in my studio. Paint is always first to me even when I’m trying to figure out the shape of a nose or a chicken, so it naturally is always first and foremost in my mind. I can’t help it, I was brought up that way.

To answer the alien question directly though, if I’m painting a landscape and no ocular rules are followed at all, the piece becomes ungrounded. Things like temperature, weight, light, near and far, or flatness help ground a viewer. They can relate to a painting as a window into another space because they walk around a world that obeys those rules. Like good fiction, an author must suspend the readers disbelief so I guess the ghost in the room is the balancing act.

KB: One really learns by following one’s curiosities and in that sense your approach to investigating those things that make you tick is enthusiastic. Can you talk about your curiosities outside the studio, and how those interests inevitably find a way into your paintings? Through your Facebook posts, I would assume film, particularly bad film, is one of these interests.

CB: Yes B-movies for sure. Although I mean it in the truest sense of the term. Not A-movies. I like lesser known stars, sad little budgets, and this feeling of wonky duct tape freedom. I mean yes I could say I love the fragility of them in the same way I appreciate a river-hobo-canoe made almost entirely out of Bondo, but honestly, the ones I love are the most apeshit, and the most apeshit are the ones that make me laugh the hardest. And I get bummed out so easily that watching them keeps me out of opium dens. So thank you B-movies.

I also love Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies. Actual ground fighting, that is to say visceral ass beating, will never be replaced by slow motion crying to piano music! Plus all the computer generated fighting in newer Chinese kung fu flicks? Come on. I make fists at them and throw my arms in the air! You suck!

Anyway, I try to mix all that up with art history stuff. I mean, all these movies come from retellings of history so might as well bring it back around. I also love comics, sci-fi novels, Skaldic poetry, trashy disco….. The list is as long as it is insane. Basically I will use anything I can get my hands on and if I can get the color and composition to hum and blush to my liking I will probably try and use it.

Carl Baratta ‘A Dog Leg of Red Light Splits the Black Machine’ 2013

Kevin Blake is a Chicago based artist and writer.

Repost: The Ghosts of Place by Dylan Trigg

August 13, 2013 · Print This Article

The following essay by Dylan Trigg was published by The White Review.



’So I turned around for an instant to look at what my field of vision onto the sea had not offered up: the heavy grey mass where traces of planks lined up along the inclined ramp like a tiny staircase. I got up and decided to have a look around this fortification as if I had seen it for the first time, with its embrasure flush with the sand, behind the protective screen, looking out onto the Breton port, aiming today at inoffensive bathers, its rear defence with a staggered entrance and its dark interior in the blinding light of the gun’s opening toward the sea.’ – Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology


Disturbed by the vision, I look at the house from the vantage point of the outside. If the figure has come to me in a moment of private intimacy, then I am sure it would not follow me down the stairs and onto the other side of the street, and thereby expose itself to the public gaze. On the contrary, I am fairly convinced it is still inside, likely oscillating between the landing on the hallway and the kitchen, where – so I assume – it may have once encountered some kind of trauma that led it to being affixed to this place in time.

How many other people had seen the figure since the conception of the house in the fifteenth century? Numerous people no doubt through the centuries, each of whom will have had their own story to tell. In addition, all of these people will have had their own interpretation of the figure, from the seventeenth century interpretation of spectres as restorers of social injustices of the living to the nineteenth century interpretation of the such sights as a figure of death that refuses to die, thus offering hope that in an increasingly secularised age, life after death remains possible.

Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 5.45.31 AM 

In all this, I may well form part of a historical community that will have encountered this vision in this particular place, 70 High Street, Lewes, Sussex. What did the figure want from us all: to testify to its mournful existence, to become its voice, or simply in the act of affecting another person, to remind itself that it still holds the power to form an alliance with the living? And why did it choose us? Are we in some sense more receptive to the troubled dreams of those who refuse to die than other people? Did the figure sense an anxiety within each of us that renders our senses more attuned to ambiguous forms of life?


What is a ghost? The question has gained a particular value in the last decade or so owing to the influence of Derrida’s concept of hauntology, a pun on ontology referring to the spectre of Marxism. As it is understood in a post-Derridean context, the concept refers to a broad range of cultural phenomenon characterised, above all, by a certain collapse in the spatio-temporal order, signalling the radical collision of old and new. It is a Ballardian vision of time, in which the end has already occurred and we are now – perhaps unknowingly – living in its shadow.

The term figures in a variety of mediums, from the archival restoration of ‘abandonware’ and ‘dead tech’, to the music of both Caretaker and the retro pastiche of Belbury Poly together with the associated Ghost Box Music label. In films, the theme is evident in works such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Alongside these mediums, the image of the urban ruin being reclaimed by wild mangroves, the drained swimming pool of an abandoned hotel, and the decommissioned remains of war bunkers would all be central motifs for the hauntologist. In each of these forms, the hauntological aesthetic plays out in terms of an appeal to the uncanny: that is, to the re-emergence of what was originally repressed, but only now—through an accidental rupture in the present – comes to light. Such an aesthetic has its roots in Freud, and can then be mapped out in the work of surrealists and their usage of anachronism, before then resurfacing in Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, which will later re-appear once more in the works of W. G. Sebald, and in a contemporary guise, in artists such as Cyprien Gaillard and Gregory Chatonsky. (read more)

Everyday, Ambulatory Movement : Long Gone at The Hills Esthetic Center

March 9, 2011 · Print This Article

“There is something dreamlike about the points that provide a view of the other side, but they belong not so much to the dreamtime as to dream work. The nomads enter the dreamtime not by setting off on some extraordinary, dangerous voyage, but through their everyday, ambulatory movement.” -Cesar Aira, “Ghosts”

I have been thinking about Maren Miller’s exhibition, Long Gone, for the last few weeks. When I begin to write about it, I pause,  get lost in thought and forget about writing. Until this week, I had not yet found the framework with which to formalize my intuitive reactions.

What I saw: Across the street from The Hills Esthetic Center, stands a Juvenile Detention Center;  Hills does not have a doorbell. A friendly face let me in after I called the prescribed telephone number. On my way up the stairs, several young men passed on their way out. For an old werehouse it was surprisingly warm inside. The steel stairs had been recently painted red. On the second floor, I walked through a wide hallway, went into one of many doors on the right and entered a welcoming living space. In the subsequent kitchen, a content-looking cat greeted me. It was polite—not overly friendly; it seemed to enjoy its hostly duties. The ceilings were at least 16 feet overhead and comparable windows bathed the room in light. There was a second room inside of this kitchen. Inside that second room hung Maren Miller’s exhibit, Long Gone.

Miller builds architectural spaces with simple lines. I wanted to see if I might do the same with words.

Above one wall, the wall that the gallery shares with the kitchen, a mirror hung parallel to the floor. That way people in the kitchen could look into the exhibition space and people in the space could look into the kitchen. When I looked up, I was comforted by the domestic action of pots and pans on the other side of our common wall. They gave me more confidence in the clean, white room and periodically my eyes returned to the mirror, for a small, grounding break.

The show: Primarily red and blue and black and white. There is a sense of humor in the work and motifs refract through different pieces in an almost narrative arc: a labyrinth on a wood panel is akin to a snake-like canvas line, which is similar to a stream of paint that spills on a table that stands on a floor which, again, is reminiscent of the labyrinth. A chair covered in a tarp seat cover is the only three-dimensional presence other than myself. The chair beneath the tarp is intuited rather than seen and such considerations lean a little on the experience of my own physical presence. Behind the chair, a picture of a window is covered by a pictorial curtain. In another hanging canvas piece, a picture of what looks like text (blocky, reminiscent again of the labyrinth language) is cut off by what could be a curtain, or another very fat snake, or another stream of dripping paint. At the end of the room stands one real window. That window is also curtained by a patterned, unstretched canvas.

Each work in the show withholds something. It is covered by another piece of itself, asking to be uncovered or—in the most plain case of the labyrinth—solved. The motifs themselves are both banal and archetypal—the labyrinth, the snake, the window. Used in the everyday as they are in myth. Nevertheless, unlike their fabled counterparts, Miller’s representations are insolvable; they cannot be uncovered and thus deny the traditional hero his or her epic fulfillment.

The painter is also in the index of archetypes, but Miller’s paintings are not about a heroic painter.

The paintings are not stretched. Instead they hang on limp canvases, abstract, like cartoons of paintings. Other works on panels—the table with the floorboards, and the blue and white labyrinth—are not paintings at all, save for a gessoed background. These boast the illusion of paintings, for on closer inspection, the picture plane is defined by meticulously cut out (possibly electrical) tape. The surface of that tape lays flat, like a second layer of ink in a screen print. Here again, the surface is plastic and impenetrable.

Ghosts: A few days ago a friend quotes a section in Cesar Aira’s book, Ghosts. The book takes place in South America, in the middle of a growing industrial city; it centers on a family living in a high-rise construction site. Everything smells like cement. Halfway through the middle of the book the main character, a 13 year old girl, takes a nap. At this point the whole family is asleep–enjoying a siesta  before the evening, when the family will have a party on the roof. Up until this point, the action of the book takes place on a vertical plane as characters laboriously climb up and down half-built stairs. With this collective nap, the author introduces a horizontal axis, describing other human communities and the way their various architectural habitats reflect respective social priorities. In light of that digression, the book’s monolithic skyscraper becomes one of many possible futures. In order to draw that conclusion, however—in order to shift from a vertical axis to a horizontal one, Aira uses dreams as vehicle of shift.

“There are societies in which the unbuilt dominates almost entirely: for example, among the Australian Aborigines. Instead of building, the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant ‘construction.’ The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it’s the same as the ‘mental city,’ Joyce’s Dublin, for instance….The visible landscape is an effect of causes that are to be found in the dreamtime. For example, the snake that dragged itself over this plain creating these undulations, etc. etc. These curious Aborigines make sure their eyes are closed while events take place, which allows them to see places as records of events. But what they see is a kind of dream, and they wake into a reverie, since the real story (the snake, not the hills) happened while they were asleep.”

In waking, we see the affect of that gesture. In looking at Miller’s work, I see a congress of decisions that took place before me. I cannot penetrate the surface she creates, because I was not present in the process of its creation. Further, the dimension I interpret is a product of my literacy—acquired over years and generations. Obviously this painted space is illusionistic, but its representation has repercussions in the way one regards other schemes of order. It is useful to recognize the myopic trajectory of history and progress—whether that history is about cities and human habitat, or painting or anything in between. Nevetheless Miller’s work is not relativistic. These objects are sure of themselves and concrete. It is my relationship to them that shifts.

I looked at the mirror and saw the pots and pans and the cat was standing on a counter; its tail flicked.

Maren Miller’s work points to the dream state, during which objects are made. Her work creates the affect of space and depth, but in fact remain a surface. We see the affect and intuited depth of her gestures, yet the desire look “beneath,” to capture an intimate relationship (or “truth”) of the work, will remain unsated. She entertains Painting, as a genre, and in my analogy the Painting Genre is like the skyscraper. Massive, towering, lofty. Miller takes a dream in that building, while dreaming a snake with paint on its back undulates over a white wall. Something else stamps architectural lines onto a flat surface, creating dimension in a previously dimensionless space. As I stood there I looked again at the panel with the table and the red paint. The floorboards depicted in the “painting” mirrored those on the floor under my feet. I turned towards the literal curtain behind me, thinking about the repetitions of mark-making, how that repetition reinforces a world-view. The premises of architecture and art are inherited and built upon.

It was nevertheless with some relief that I pulled back the curtain and saw a street outside. A car drove slowly past the window.

If you want to read another something about Maren Miller and her show at Hills, check out this interview with The Post Family.