Critics’ Picks

  • John Baeder, Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, pigment photograph, 11 x 14".

    John Baeder, Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, pigment photograph, 11 x 14".

    New York

    John Baeder

    ACA Galleries
    529 West 20th Street 5th Floor
    November 5, 2022–February 18, 2023

    Since the late 1960s, Photorealist painters have been known for their scrupulous fidelity to the way life supposedly looks. Yet the genre’s domain is decidedly narrower than that of reality. Its earliest practitioners immersed us in the warped mirror that the United States held to itself at midcentury. Most Photorealists were born during the Depression and aged into a postwar America incongruous to the poor country of their youth, filled with thriving suburbs, unrepentant automobile worship, and metastasizing highways.

    Among this group of artists is John Baeder (b. 1938), who is interested in the humbler, dustier textures of everyday life, not some high-def mimetic version of it. His retrospective here, “Looking Back 1972–2018,” encompasses paintings (in acrylic, oil, and watercolor) of old diners; photographic still lifes; a painstakingly crafted, five-and-a-half-foot-wide canvas depicting a promotional postcard for an octagonal-shaped cottage; and blown-up renderings of matchbook covers from a series that he began in 2018 while losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. The artist’s painterly photographs and photographic paintings envision an America with polished veneers and crumbling interiors. Baeder knows that vibrant surfaces can hold sadness inside. 

    Take the still-life photograph Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, which features a scale-model 1934 Packard, faux roses, bottles of vintage scents, and a handwritten recipe book from the Budapest perfume factory that Nazis seized from Baeder’s Jewish forebears before condemning them to Auschwitz—a chilling revelation from a deceptively innocent-looking tableau. Miss America, 2018, one of Baeder’s matchbook-cover paintings, renders the chrome of the titular railcar diner without any details, offering only flat, cartoonish washes of silver paint. The color may be seductive, but ultimately Baeder forces us to acknowledge the thinness of the American enterprise.

  • Spencer Finch, Candlelight (CIE 529/418), 2022, stained glass, steel frame, dimensions variable.

    Spencer Finch, Candlelight (CIE 529/418), 2022, stained glass, steel frame, dimensions variable.

    New York

    Spencer Finch

    Hill Art Foundation
    239 Tenth Avenue, Third Floor
    September 16, 2022–March 4, 2023

    Spencer Finch’s efforts to rediscover and resurrect moments of ephemerality, often through re-creating specific instances of light and color—such fleeting treasures—speak to our instinct to wrest control and ownership of beauty. Finch doesn’t look to this gap between our desires and reality with sorrow, but instead explores this push and pull with humor and affection. His work tells a story about human life with all its foibles and grace, reminding us how lucky we are to experience it.

    The artist’s show here, “Lux and Lumen,” takes its title from the writings of twelfth-century historian Abbot Suger, an early champion of Gothic architecture and the steward of a cathedral in Saint-Denis, France, which serves as the subject of Finch’s Rose Window at Saint-Denis (morning effect), 2022, a radial composition of LEDs adhered to a wall that re-creates the morning light of the holy space. Suger wrote of the ability that stained glass has to transform everyday light, or lux, into the more sacred form of luminescence, lumen. By toying with this distinction between the divine and the ordinary, a subtle but revelatory question emerges: What light isn’t holy?

    The show was conceived around the foundation’s recent acquisition and restoration of The Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1533, a stained-glass work by French Renaissance artist Valentin Bousch. It depicts Adam and Eve on their dejected walk from Eden—the expulsion from paradise yet another metaphor for our need to find the permanent and perfect in a world that is neither. Finch selected ten of his own pieces, made between 2001 and 2022, to exhibit alongside it. Among them are The Outer—from the Inner (Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom Window at Dusk), 2018, a suite of seven small photographs of the window beside the eponymous poet’s writing desk at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. These images capture the progression of night; as evening grows, the windows become darker and more reflective, and the surfaces that once contained exterior views instead begin to mirror the room’s interior. And Candlelight (CIE 529/418), 2022, a stained-glass installation, makes the natural light from an upstairs corner of the exhibition space mimic the warmth of a candle’s flame—another flickering of human yearning, another flash of the divine.