Centring around Baer’s most recent series, In the Land of Giants, developed since 2009, Camden Art Centre’s exhibition of Jo Baer’s work reveals the artist making great shifts in formal terms yet maintaining continuity in subject matter. These newer works are inspired by Paleolithic cave paintings, and much of the imagery derives from Baer’s time spent living in Ireland between 1975 and 1982. The Neolithic Hurlstone in particular is referenced, a local landmark enshrined in folklore as a stone tossed into a field by giants. The cultural signifiers of time passing are clearly of great interest to Baer. By bringing together a wealth of mythological, archaeological, art historical, and scientific imagery the artist explores our relationship with the world and its histories. Pinned directly to the wall, perhaps a reference to the cave paintings which inspired the artist, these large scale works are so rich in content that you leave feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
Baer layers her imagery, combining multiple styles and sources in a single painting. The careful order of an Ordnance Survey map, tracing the path of a river, will be overlaid with the Camden Town gothic of a crow silhouetted against a moon, for example. These visual languages function as both signs and patterns. Maps; astrological, geographical, epitomise Baer’s concern with representation as a mediator between us and the world. The Neolithic Hurlstone, a recurring motif, seems to function in a similar way here. Testament to a time long past, in the sense that it can be scientifically dated, and the locus of a myth fabricated in attempt to understand the past in a time before science could pinpoint it with such accuracy, the Hurlstone is emblematic because it simultaneously speaks of time passing in the abstract and its cultural demarcations.
Image: Jo Baer, Heraldry (Posts and Spreads) – Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm
Myth and science are both presented as tools employed to make sense of time, and in this way these in many ways opposing forces are unified. They aren’t the only divergent fields of enquiry that find common ground in Baer’s painting. Of a Fearful Symmetry (1991) echoes human veins with river maps, seemingly connecting the human and geographical landscape. Art history is another discipline functioning here as a timeline, another strand in Baer’s interwoven history. Two of the most iconic paintings in Western art history, The Birth of Venus and Las Meninas, appear, typically surrounded by a diverse collections of cultural signifiers. It’s an unashamedly Romantic vision; ancient civilizations, waterways, birds and buildings all swirling together with the human at the centre of the storm. At times the loss of context threatens to erase the subtle ties that connect cultures with their own timelines. The artist’s impulse to synthesise rather than give space to difference sometimes reduces a particular iconography or style, for instance pattern that seems to evoke Australian indigenous art, to a support in Baer’s grand design rather than a distinct system of meaning with its own connections to time and history.
Image: Jo Baer, Royal Families (Curves, Points and Little Ones) – Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm
The Old Year (1974-5) shows the continuity between Baer’s abstract work and her later figurative practice. Alluding to the moon’s movement across the night sky, this warm, minimal composition perhaps represents an attempt to engage more with the physical realities of time passing than its reflections in human culture. Baer’s timelines of human thought and memory, whether abstract or figurative, speak of a profound engagement with the world and our place in it. It’s a humanist vision which is distinctly positive and life affirming.
Jo Baer: Towards the Land of the Giants – Camden Arts Centre – until 21 June 2015
Words: Laura Purseglove photos courtesy of Camden Arts Centre © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved