New York

Donald Baechler

In his most recent paintings, Donald Baechler’s visual language has become increasingly abstract and iconic. Despite his reticence about relating his work directly to his life—he’s admitted only that there might be “something vaguely autobiographical” about it—its power stems in part from its capacity to seem so deeply, even naively, personal.

In a group of new paintings, solitary black silhouettes of trees or vases of flowers stand out against a mottled silvery gray background. In Any Human Heart, 2003, a pair of underwear is visible through the paint, in a gesture emblematic of Baechler’s overall sensibility: erotically tinged, prankish, yet never obscene. Subjects are paired with their most emblematic shapes—in A Cold Proposition #2, 2003, a pine tree resembles a stylized pinecone. It’s their jug-headed similarity that allows each figure to stand out boldly and plainly, as gawky and humble as the living entities depicted.

In the large works, trademark Baechler figures such as a boyishly rendered horse head or a flower hover over nebular collages of fabric and fanciful imagery. Included in the scrum are swatches of decorated paper, cutouts from a throw rug, yawning hippos out of a children’s book, FBI “wanted” posters, dice and playing cards on newsprint, and a list of the Seven Deadly Sins. In Sing with Less Music, 2003, there’s a nicely opaque slogan, ASK ME I LIVE HERE; Baechler has a knack for elements as familiar as they are difficult to pinpoint, as exotic as they seem homespun.

Leavening the compositions are homely smatterings of paint that owe more to AbEx than anything we’ve yet seen from this artist. In Autonomy or Anarchy #2, 2003, a ring of white in the lower-left corner marks where a paint can sat on the surface. The backgrounds of these quilt-size works are also lusher and more dynamic; and the quality of puckish mischief has here been honed toward the paradoxical, into work that feels private but generous, playful but sincere, anxious but composed.

Boyhood could be called Baechler’s great subject, and it’s fair to wonder if his appeal isn’t primarily nostalgic. Yet when one winces at a passage—say, the phrase I HATE YOU spelled out in glue and sparkles—one recognizes the trepidation and debilitating eroticism definitive for so many of early life. An elementary school yearbook photo of the artist that appears throughout the larger works calls to mind the harsh self-reflection of John Ashbery in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers”: “My head . . . / Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus. / I had a hard stare, accepting // Everything, taking nothing, / As though the rolled-up future might stink / As loud as stood the sick moment / The shutter clicked.”

In the end, though, these works are more ebullient, tender, and rich than they are fraught or self-pitying—as if art were some shy child’s ultimate victory. Stack, 2003, is a twelve-foot-high sculpture of six little human figures, a latter-day totem pole that tempts one to climb it. Its people appear as they might from an alien’s perspective or from the point of view of a child—bumbling, funny, earnest, even kind. More than childhood itself, Baechler’s fundamental theme seems the imaginative recognition of an innocence that in the face of our annihilating age remains mute, perhaps, but obstinate.

Tom Breidenbach