Don Baum

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

In his historical bestseller Montaillou (1978), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie uses the term “domus” to mean both family and house and so to describe the basic cell and unifying concept of social and cultural life in a 14th-century French village. After the death of a family head, bits of his fingernails and hair, materials that grow after death, became “bearers of intense vital energy,” and transformed the domus into a receptacle of mystical significance. In 1982, inspired by this book, Don Baum showed a group of tiny houses or huts made up of bits and pieces found along the shores of Lake Superior near Au Train, Michigan, where he spent summers. That’s about the only French connection we can make for Baum, but he continues to demonstrate an obsessive need to make connections, no longer overtly autobiographical, and to fashion them into houses. While the first group were rather fragile, ethnographic-looking constructions with hide-and-feather walls and a roof thatched with human hair, this latest group, many of them larger, about 2 feet tall, are mostly reassembled from fragments of painted wood—specifically from worn parts of children’s games, puzzles, and wood-burning kits. Complex interlocking patterns and a pleasure in decoration mark this latest batch of works, which are still presented modestly on breadboard foundations.

Baum’s recycling of children’s games not only imposes a formal prerequisite on the brightly colored surfaces, but also reminds us that some earlier, grimmer constructions of his were compiled from broken baby-doll bodies. Like many works by his Chicago colleagues in the ’50s, they were obedient to Surrealist metaphors, to processes of chance association drawn from Dada and primitive sources. These figurative assemblages sometimes told unpleasant tales of the war between the sexes and of a nightmare psychology. Evoking but not really resembling the houses of H. C. Westermann, the new houses are less deter-mined by Surrealism, and even if the metaphor is still based on oneiric activity, they support daydreams.

Although Baum uses the house as structural support, he is not much interested in its sculptural possibilities, in how it displaces or contains space, but rather in how it displays patterns and implies narrative. Some objects incorporate fragmented images of ships; they could be souvenirs from imaginary voyages to places that existed in the past. To see a total composition one tends to walk around the house in a movement that echoes the way each building was made. In Curtain, 1984, for example, toy train tracks are looped across the house front and over its roof, wrapping it up like a ribbon round a package. In Rosebud, 1984, you think you get the clue right away in a tiny flower decal, but then on another side you find a red piece in the shape of a sled runner. Just as Baum links associations of discarded childhood games and voyages, so he fits together elements with the compositional strength, clarity, and high spirits of Stuart Davis.

Still, like most house constructions, these works deal with memory. They are chambers for recollection. Assuming anthropomorphic qualities, they can be tall or squat, prim or baroque; most deny entry, possessing neither doors nor windows. Safe, 1984, made of eroded, rusted metal, lets in the light to cast filigree shadows in the interior and is an example of how modest materials have the potential for expansive and romantic associations. This exhibition’s dense installation heightened the work’s link with reliquary objects rather than with architecture.

The show was predominantly colorful and lyrical, but one small house, Studio for M, 1983, with walls and roof made of a translucent plastic, was the star. Its opalescent transparency, evident emptiness, and luminosity were a clear statement stretching Baum’s well-known poetic gifts. Obviously hollow and insubstantial, the house nevertheless assumed the properties of a fetish to become “a bearer of intense vital energy.”

Judith Russi Kirshner