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.




This Is Why Indiana Is The Shit

November 28, 2011 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine

Stephanie and I took the Metra to Hammond, Indiana, where Linda Dorman and Tom Torluemke picked us up at the station, and brought us back to their place.  We ate pizza around their dining room table and then drank beer around a campfire in their backyard.  (Linda drank Coke, Tom O’Doul’s.)  Tom had built a perfect teepee fire, abashedly using compressed firestarters (which he called “cheating”) to light the fire.

 

Installation view of "Water" at Sidecar Gallery, featuring work by James Jankowiak, Tom Burtonwood, and Holly Holmes.

They took us to Sidecar Gallery to see “Water,” a show of work by Tom Burtonwood, Holly Holmes, and James Jankowiak.  Tom Burtonwood created a wallpaper of a computer-generated alphabet consisting of isomorphic perspective renderings of three-dimensional blocks (like Tetris pieces), each rendered in a different, simple pattern of marks.  It looked like a 1980s visualization of some kind of data set, but in fact represented an alphabet or code.  Apparently it incorporated QR codes which stored a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a website that would decode the alphabet for you…but, lacking a smartphone, we didn’t try it.  Burtonwood also created some small wooden sculptures that mimicked the form of the wallpaper.

Painting and wallpaper by James Jankowiak, sculpture by Tom Burtonwood.

James Jankowiak also created a wallpaper of sorts, covering several walls of the gallery with parallel strips of brightly colored plastic tape.  But his major works are small, square, incredibly precise paintings of minutely varying shades of color.  The works in this exhibition consisted of concentric circles.  In one, each circle was a slightly different shade of blue.  In another, a green torus vibrates electrically against a red field.  In a third, blues, browns, and whites alternate on a beige field.  One’s first thought is of course of sectioned Jawbreaker candies but a moment’s thought links them more closely with Josef Albers’ color studies.

Work by Tom Burtonwood at Sidecar Gallery.

Both Jankowiak’s and Burtonwood’s wallpapers served as backdrops for their own, and each other’s, small paintings and sculptures, turning the exhibition into more of a collaboration than a group show.  In the front room was one of Holly Holmes’ recent wooden sculptures, in which thin strips of wooden lathe are bent into a complex, looping form, like a diagram of the flight of a bumblebee, or a crazy zero-gravity roller-coaster.  I’ve seen a previous work of this type by Holmes, at Chicago Urban Arts Society, as part of Wood Worked, in which the material of the piece was left raw and unfinished.  In Water, it was painted in blue and white.  In each case the color and surface seemed an homage to the theme of the exhibition.

We had tickets for the 11:10pm South Shore Line Metra train home, but Sidecar was shutting down at 10pm, so instead of waiting around the train station in the cold for an hour after the show, Linda hooked us up with her friend Erik, who agreed to bring us back to Chicago.  But, he said, we had to make what he assured us would be a brief stop at a friend’s birthday party.  That’s how we ended up at Cisa Studio.

The birthday boy is this kid Flex, one of the guys who runs Cisa Studio in Hammond Indiana.  I call him a kid because he’s full of youthful energy, but in fact this is the eve of his 40th Birthday.  The vibe is like a house party or maybe like the office Christmas party for a tattoo parlor.  Erik introduces us as we walk in the door, and everybody is so nice, welcoming us with warm handshakes and cold beer.  The bathroom is immaculately clean, and the main space is stylishly decorated, with mood lighting and music befitting the occasion.  We meet Flex, see some of his work (a portrait, in spraypaint on canvas, very realistically executed), and then he shows us the backyard.

This involves three layers:  first, downstairs to an indoor, basement-like space where people gather to smoke around a big plywood table covered in drawings and graffiti writing.  A massive digital printer sits against one wall.  Signs advertise various services:  fine art paintings, signs, and airbrushed images for your motorcycle helmet, gas tank, leather jackets, and cars.  There’s a motorcycle helmet with an absolutely flawless airbrushed rendering of the comic book character Venom on it:  more of Flex’s work.

From there we moved into the garage, where a classic car sat, grind marks showing bare metal through the primer:  a work in progress, speaking of infinite potential.  In the back corner, a motorcycle sported a Minigun-type cluster of barrels emerging from its exhaust pipes.  I don’t know, but I imagine that they spin and belch fire when the motorcycle is running.  I sat there, spinning the barrels by hand, entranced.

Airbrushed motorcycle gas tank by Cisa Studio.

The backyard itself hosted a bench that had been airbrushed by some of Flex’s friends as part of a public art commission.  I looked around, and admired the facilities:  an absolutely gorgeous, spacious workspace.  What’s more, Flex told me, their rent is less than what Steph and I pay for our bedroom-and-a-half apartment in Ravenswood!  “This is why Indiana is the shit,” Flex explained.  It’s hard to argue with that.

We smoked cigarettes, talked to the Cisa crew, and drank more beer.  Then we were gathered, slowly and chaotically, into a rough herd, with the purpose of ambling down the alley to the studio’s exhibition space, a separate building a block down, to see Arte Muerte 2011, the 4th annual occurrence of this “Day Of The Dead” themed exhibition.  On the way I met the crew’s photographer, the most heavily-tattooed guy there, long-haired, with a rock-and-roll aesthetic that goes some way towards explaining his nickname, “Tommy Lee.”  To look at him you’d expect him to be biting the head off a bat or something, and turns out to be an incredibly sweet and super righteous dude.

Arte Muerte consisted of Day of the Dead altars and two-dimensional wall art, all encompassing themes of death, family, ancestry, tradition, ritual, and a Latino or Mexican cultural heritage.  The aesthetic of the work ranged from psychedelic and graffiti to Aztec and Maya glyphic writing, Catholic saints, and plenty of skulls.  What struck me most immediately about the show was that not a single thing in it felt ironic, exploitative, or appropriated:  there weren’t sculptures of altars, they weren’t about altars, they were genuine and sincere embodiments of this tradition.

After checking out the exhibition we made our way back to the studios where some of the guys were breakdancing, and we all did tequila shots in celebration of Flex’s birthday.  The Cisa studio crew talked to be about growing up together, and about how they hung out with Keith Haring when he was in Chicago.  They showed me a picture of them all, years ago, hanging out with Haring.  Erik mentioned working at Genesis Art Supply back in the day, and I asked him if he’d known Wesley Willis.  They guys all started telling stories about hanging out with him back in the day, of setting him up in the store to sit there and draw.  One of the guys proudly told me that Wesley had given him a drawing, which he still had.  Another had Willis’ old Casio keyboard from when he was growing up.

Invitation card for Erik DeBat's exhibition, "Risk & Reward."

Many hours, many stories, and many beers later, we were all feeling pretty ready to head out.  Another couple was catching a ride with us as well.  Erik DeBat, our ride, had made sure to moderate his consumption and was quite sober and fit to drive.  The rest of us were all pretty sauced, but I was still pretty lucid, and due to my long-leggedness our fellow passengers had afforded me the front seat, so I had much opportunity for conversation with Erik.  We talked about his work, and he gave me a copy of the catalog from a recent exhibition he’d had:  Risk & Reward, at The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, in August of 2011.  I open it up, and I see this painting of The Hulk, and something looks familiar about it.  The catalog essay is by Tony Fitzpatrick and it all falls into place:  I’ve seen Erik’s work, and probably Erik himself, at Tony Fitzpatrick’s place.  He gave me a card for an upcoming exhibition (Recursion, at 2612 Space) featuring Erik’s work as well as James Jankowiak, Mario Gonzalez Jr., Victor Lopez, and William Weyna.  I wasn’t able to make it to that one, but he also told me that he’s got a show coming up at Firecat Projects, in May 2012.  I generally make it to all of the openings at Firecat, but I’m looking forward to this one in particular.

Jeriah Hildwine is an artist, educator, and art writer for ArtPulse, Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.