Don Baum

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Don Baum’s art, like Joseph’s coat of many colors, patches together fragments of seemingly bankrupt source materials into objects that transcend their origins without erasing originary traces. Baum takes anonymous paint-by-number canvases and kitschy oil-on-velvet paintings that he finds in resale shops and cuts them up, recasting them along with bits of wood into very eloquent, small, profile portrait sculptures and wall pieces. He manages to imbue his rather forlorn and humble source materials with a curious kind of dignity. These works have the quality of modest votive presentation pieces, due in no small part to the respectful attention Baum pays to the echoes of meaning in any image, achieving a nostalgic estheticism similar to that of Joseph Cornell’s. At its most direct, his art can, as in Sphinx (all works 1992), take a paint-by-number image of a reclining dog, remove the dog’s head and replace it with a head of Christ taken from another such painting, to create an image that is oddly poignant. Arms of Morpheus reverses that process, and the attentive and alert head of a dog emerging out of Christ’s paint-by-number robes still somehow manages to remain attuned to the honesty and faith invested in these images by their original makers.

Baum’s profile portraits of friends and colleagues make up the majority of the pieces in this exhibition, and here, too, he makes a virtue of the usually unintentional clumsiness of his raw materials. Like cameos, these portraits are silhouette images, much more accurate as studies of the contours of heads than of the particular physiognomy of faces. In the tradition of profile portraiture, Baum’s subjects stare impassively to the left or right—these are double-sided portraits, like two sides of a coin—self-absorbed and unconscious of the viewer. There is a kind of aloofness in this treatment of an individual, a psychological distance Baum attempts to diminish through his encoded iconography. One side of the head of Asclepius is constructed completely of fragments of cliched, paint-by-number images of Native Americans, and the other side out of a single large fragment from a generic bucolic farm landscape, turned 90 degrees. The work bespeaks some private allegorical relationship between artist and subject: all of these portraits have their titles drawn from mythology, as if they are to be Baum’s cryptic and personal pantheon of friends.

Unlike Arcimboldo’s profile portraits, Baum’s images derive private and poetic meaning from each of their collaged sources, inviting speculation about the layering of symbolism in the formation of a work. In Pomona, the delicate and close-cropped head of the wood nymph beloved of Vertumnus is constructed out of a single cut-out landscape with a bubbling fountain in its midst. It, and the wonderful bit of woodwork forming its base, suggest calmness and grace, a soothing spiritual and intellectual balance reinforced by the determined set of her head. While in Selene, the goddess of the moon stares dreamily toward a crescent arc of wood, her head composed of a misty forest scene turned on its side, now all mystery and wonder. All of this represents a new and rather interesting wrinkle on the desire evident in some contemporary art to recycle elements of low culture into constructs that, like double-sided profile portraits, can look backward and forward at the same time.

James Yood