PRINT January 2005

Kristin Baker

Kristin Baker,  The Unfair Advantage, 2003, acrylic on PVC, 60 x 108".

Accident and control, anxiety and euphoria orbit one another in Kristin Baker’s current series of paintings, which is inspired by the seductive theatricality of auto racing and fuses the sport’s electric colors, industrial materials, and iconic imagery with passages of modernist abstraction. The resulting “dysfunctional panoramas,” as the New York–based artist calls them, posit racing—with its combination of mastery, failure, calculation, and chance—as analogous to painting itself, offering an ambivalent reflection on modernity, spectacle, and global consumerist culture in the process. Interpreting the racetrack as a kind of contemporary coliseum, Baker’s works conjure both complicit enthusiasm and tenuous concern toward the popular fascination with sensationalist mass entertainment.

Baker’s landscapes are steeped in a lifetime of frequenting the track with her father, an amateur race-car driver. But while she has long been shooting photographs and videos of the sport on location, it was only during her final months in Yale’s MFA program that the 29-year-old artist began to engage conceptually with the activity of racing, and the imagery found its way into her painting. Baker explains that she started to understand racing as a microcosm of American capitalism, given the sport’s inherent ties to technological innovation and corporate sponsorship, the latter evidenced by those omnipresent logos plastered onto car bodies, stadium walls, and drivers’ suits. Despite such culturally specific associations, many paintings transform representational details into predominantly formal elements, as in Ride to Live, Live to Ride, 2004. The up-close vantage of a moment immediately following an explosive crash, when smoke clouds the view of drivers and spectators alike, is dominated by vibrant, propulsive shards that radiate outward, interlacing with billowing flows of sooty haze. The flurry of edges and forms, reminiscent of the ornamental impulse of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement, imbues the scene of destruction with a paradoxical, almost floral delicacy, as translucent and opaque layers of paint overlap like scraps of torn tissue, beautiful despite circumstance.

Kristin Baker,  Big Bang Vrooom, 2003, acrylic on PVC, 8 x 10'.

Baker talks about “building” paintings, an apt term given the works’ distinct collage sensibility and almost trompe l’oeil relief. She creates such effects through an elaborate process of first intuitively “drawing” with tape and then, as she begins to paint, ripping up the strips gradually to generate strata of impasto areas beside passages of scraped-down sheerness. Her striking use of high-gloss, metallic, and cementlike pigments suggests a “constructed” industrial aesthetic, which is reinforced by her choice of materials: She applies acrylic paint with spatulas and knives onto outsize PVC panels, the kind commonly used for public signage and racetrack walls. Recently, Baker has also erected freestanding paintings; for example, Kurotoplac Kurve, 2004, a large, arced contour of panels supported by an aluminum lattice, evokes both stadium bleachers and winding track.

In this latter work, scattered car fragments blast across the surface in yellows, blues, greens, and blacks, possessing a strangely effervescent lightness. Blurred forms provide a tactile sense of speed, a pulchritude of velocity whose depiction recalls the early-twentieth-century Futurists, while gestural, undulating sweeps of red-and-white stripes lining the track walls around the gray, muscular whorl of a paved hairpin turn summon Abstract Expressionism. This coy insinuation of a range of stylistic references further indicates how Baker, throughout her work, reflexively addresses its status as painting, focusing in particular on questions of abstraction versus representation in her chosen medium.

The next year will be a big one for Baker. A solo show at ACME in Los Angeles (March 19–April 16) will be followed by an unusual opportunity: beginning in early May, she will exhibit six billboard-size works along the citywide raceway of the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix. The stunning combination of artifice and reality, with Baker’s paintings placed in a setting appropriate for what she anticipates will be her last on this theme, promises to lend a new dimension to the term “action painting.”

Debra Singer is director of The Kitchen in New York.