There are times when objects in a realist painting seem to abandon their identity and become something else-something more mysterious and independent, more like symbols or memories than easily recognized physical items occupying real space in the real world. In the recent still-life paintings of Richard Baker at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, a great many objects are so realistically depicted that they ought not to raise any doubts about their meaning. The tulips are unmistakably tulips, and a slice of lemon is unmistakably a slice of lemon.
Yet the more closely we scrutinize these objects, the more we have reason to ponder-not so much the objects themselves, perhaps, as the spaces they occupy, the shadows they cast (or fail to cast), and the relations that obtain among the objects themselves. In the painting called Agreeable View (2005), for example, we see a tabletop containing a red lobster, four silvery fish, the shells of clams and mussels, and some sections of a lemon under a single naked light bulb. In the lower right corner, however, there is, somewhat incongruously, a black, gray and white reproduction of a Cubist painting, signifying we know not what. Similarly, in the otherwise ultra-realistic Cove (2005), in which a bowl of fruit, a beetle, some olives and a glimpse of the distant cove are perfectly depicted, the sky is raining with dripping blue paint.
In her essay for the catalog of Mr. Baker’s exhibition, Hayden Herrera speaks of the “discontinuities” and “playful ambiguities” in his paintings; she even characterizes some of the “scale relationships” as “cockeyed,” and one can easily see what she means. But that dripping paint in the sky isn’t so much an ambiguity as it is a pictorial conceit adopted for the purpose of “reminding us,” as Ms. Herrera writes, “that the hypnotic image is only paint on canvas.” This is indeed its principal function, and it is a conceit that has now established itself as a modernist convention-in my view, anyway, a rather tiresome one.
After all, how many people who go to see painting exhibitions really need to be reminded that they’re looking at paintings and not something else? Rather few, I suspect. That dripping sky may also have another function: to send a signal to hip viewers that a realist painter like Mr. Baker is not to be confused with the conservatives who deplored Pollock’s drips or, even worse, don’t know anything about them. I think Mr. Baker is too fine an artist to need recourse to such a strategy. At his best, he’s as good as Magritte, and his wit is a lot subtler when he confers an atmosphere of anxiety upon objects ordinarily resistant to it-which is to say that Mr. Baker seems to have derived from Surrealism elements of wit and anxiety, but without the vulgarity and showmanship.
There is, of course, another way of responding to Mr. Baker’s still-life compositions-a more straightforward way-and that’s simply to savor his accomplishments as a first-rate realist. This is indeed the way much of the public is likely to respond to Mr. Baker’s work, and they’re certain to derive much pleasure from it.
For literary people, there’s yet another level of interest in his paintings: The books of some well-known modern authors-among them, Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kafka and William Carlos Williams-are depicted as still-life objects. Sooner or later, some Ph.D. student is bound to give us a dissertation on the parallels between the work of these writers and Mr. Baker’s enigmatic still lifes, but I shall not myself attempt to explore the subject. I shall look forward to his future exhibitions.
Richard Baker: Recent Paintings remains on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through May 27.