Chicago

Don Baum

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

There’s an aura of the ’50s and early ’60s that hovers over post-Modernism. It can be seen, for example, in David Salle’s allusions to the era’s pulp-magazine style of illustration, behind Eric Fischl’s early-TV melodramas, and within Cindy Sherman’s re-creations of glamour dolls. The mixed media assemblages of Don Baum, made of pieces of patterned linoleum and canvasboards from paint-by-number kits, take a similar glance backward. In the works seen here, which are from 1986 and 1987, Baum recycles this imagery from the pop culture of an earlier decade by cutting it up and using it as the siding on little pitched-roof houses he constructs. The linoleum is mostly flower-patterned, but the paint-by-number compositions are varied—hunting and cowboy scenes, views of the exotic Orient and tropical islands, a portrait of Christ, the Mona Lisa, and so on.

On the facade of a piece entitled The Wedding, 1986, the left half of a Christ portrait and the right half of the Mona Lisa are married into a single, hermaphroditic face. The mass-art reproductions Baum is using permit him to romp through the whole history of painting with a dizzy eclecticism, making pastiches of imagery and abrupt montages in the manner of Salle and Robert Longo. The structures into which the images have been made compound the historical cross-references in another way, too. When we look through the portal that is a part of all of the buildings but one, there is a finished room with more imagery inside. It is as if a campy little birdhouse had been transformed into a model of a Greek temple and we were getting a look into some inner sanctum of post-Modernism.

To encourage us to take a peek inside, a penlight on a string was hung next to each structure. I can’t help feeling that the spirit in which all the work in this show had been done was summed up by these gadgets on which were printed the names of the artist and gallery, the dates of the show, and the warning “for internal use.” Like the penlights, the constructions themselves seem to me little more than novelty items, a clever self-promotional gimmick that reduces history to a souvenir. If you were to buy one of them, I assume that you would get a penlight to take home at no extra charge.

I suspect that many of the post-Modernist painters are fascinated with the late ’50s and early ’60s because that’s when they were growing up. Baum, however, was no kid at the time; he was doing something much more interesting than going through adolescence. He was running Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center and giving much early, crucial support to local imagist painters. The highlight of his exhibition program there was the 1966 show for the Hairy Who group—its first—which included works by Karl Wirsum, Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt. Post-Modernism has at last created a climate receptive to the figurative, intentionally vulgar imagery these painters had been doing all along. Although the national recognition they are now beginning to get is fortuitous, it is nonetheless welcome and deserved. As a curator Baum played a central role in their careers, and one would like to think that as an artist he benefited greatly from the experience. Surely such a rich tradition of Chicago art ought to add up to more than the exercise in kitsch that his current work represents.

Colin Westerbeck