Monika Baer

Galerie Luis Campaña

Those who know Monika Baer’s early paintings might be struck momentarily speechless by the artist’s recent work. Her large new canvases feature eyes and mouths, sketched in pink, swimming on a white ground. Some of the eyes gaze at the viewer; others look up, glance to the side, or are closed. The lashes are finely rendered, the shadows around the eyelids painted with delicate precision. They lend the eyes a sculpted, even plastic appearance, allowing them to bulge almost monstrously from the canvas. In some of the pictures, the mouth is closed and only barely hinted at. When it is shown open, however, the white teeth stand out, lips arching across them. In place of the nose, Baer has painted a somewhat ghostly pig’s head on one canvas, a crucifix on another—or, alternatively, simply cut a hole into the middle of the canvas.

These images seem far removed from the “Mozart Series” with which the artist attracted attention two years ago: large, colorful canvases narrating the story of the child prodigy, in which the little Mozart, his father, and other figures are lovingly presented (as marionettes) in period costume in the midst of Rococo interiors. At first glance, everything—the costumes, the attitude of those portrayed, the setting—looks like it was taken straight out of an eighteenth-century painting. On closer examination, however, one notices that the traditional Rococo wall panels are in fact wholly abstract images, closer to Frankenthaler than Fragonard—bright passages of painting that, through the course of Baer’s series, increasingly threaten to monopolize one’s attention. In the last three works of the series, these abstract passages break into the perspectival space from the left, flooding the surface and threatening the pictorial and narrative order alike with their joyful exuberance.

At first glance, Baer’s new images—more reserved, perhaps, from a painterly perspective—have a much different effect. Or do they? Both series evoke an extraordinarily subjective reality. They are closely tied to the painter’s person, her dreams, her conscious and unconscious desires. (In the two years she spent painting the Mozart series, Baer immersed herself in the elaborate Rococo world of the Austrian composer, listening constantly to his music.)

Perhaps following Gilles Deleuze, Baer takes as her subject the question of whether, in the face of a world where computer simulation, the Internet, and genetic manipulation have become realities, the human subject as it was understood in the humanist tradition isn’t in a state of dissolution. Baer clings to her own subjectivity in defiance of that threat. Hers is a stubborn affirmation of the self, embracing its highs and lows, its amalgamations and branchings—even its contradictions.

Where does this obsessive surrender to Mozart and his time come from? From what lowlands of consciousness do the severed pigs’ heads, the crucifixes, and ghostly visages emerge? The Surrealists asked themselves these kinds of questions and found an answer in the unconscious; they believed they could uncover the source of their motivations through an “automatic” notation of their states of mind. Baer may be interested in Surrealism in a historical sense, but for her the everyday reality of an unreal world has robbed the unconscious of its authenticity. For the unconscious itself has become unreal. And that’s what makes the story so gripping.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.