Leslie Baum

Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery

Arguments in favor of zoos—that they preserve and provide opportunities for researching “at risk” species, compensate for diminishing natural habitats, and educate new generations about the diversity of life—always come up against what many consider their inherent cruelty as animal prisons in which every sentence is one of life. Leslie Baum’s recent oil paintings and watercolors take up the subject with a lissome touch, hinting at the tawdry underside of what appear to be bucolic scenes. Baum begins by taking photographs and sometimes making drawings on site, creating disembodied vignettes of animals and bits of landscape. She then shifts to watercolor, concentrating and clarifying motifs that often turn up in larger oil paintings. Baum is intrigued by zoos’ strange conflation of the natural and the contrived, their use of environments that might or might not be stimulating to their denizens.

In The Space Between (all works 2006) a small bear sits in a denuded tree and looks toward an assemblage of faux logs. (Baum’s animals are always diminutive in relation to the scenes that they inhabit, and, as in a zoo, the first thing we do is seek them out.) In the background, a tire hangs from another stark-looking tree. Baum creates and combines pictorial elements in an additive and seemingly casual way, choosing not to integrate them fully. Instead, washy and amorphous areas abut more clearly defined and identifiable elements, and these are placed near more schematic renderings. Patches of color drift free from the images with which they are loosely associated, contributing to a dreamily ambiguous atmosphere with just enough embedded narrative specificity to hang gently together. The way Baum’s bear seems to look toward the hanging tire, suggesting that it might become a noose that could deliver him or her from the ennui of endless surveillance, gives this image its eerie and uneasy subtext.

Baum never depicts bars or barriers in her paintings, so there’s always an initial feeling that she might have encountered these animals (bears, geese, seals, penguins, and monkeys) in a genuine wilderness. But the manipulated and constructed aspects of their environments eventually become apparent—the colorful pile of rocks in Among the Mighty is not natural to the seal’s environment, nor is the upturned tree root in Yellow-Bellied Twilight to the penguins’; both are elements in an art director’s diorama constructed more for the visitor than for the animal. Baum’s zoos present a contrivance that’s not without pathos—her work reveals both their allure and their tragedy as places of remarkable interest and variety that are nonetheless populated by the condemned, alienated, and perpetually scrutinized. It’s inevitable that this vision starts to become a metaphor for all existence, everywhere.

James Yood