I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children’s eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.
Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens,
A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.
From ‘The Owl’, by Ted Hughes.
“Peculiar lore and doings” mark the works, owl-themed or other, of Cornelia Baltes in her solo-show ‘Shnick Schnak Schnuk!’ The carefully curated space sends exchanges of colour and texture echoing around the room with a particularity that extends from the formal and subjective sympathies played out in Baltes’s work. The room’s light switches and plug sockets aren’t immune from being sucked into the works quiet gravity.
Since Gertrude Stein passed on an interest in comic strips to Picasso, who redressed his collection of ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ in the lineaments of his own delineated figuration, a ‘cartoon’ aesthetic has ebbed and flowed throughout the art movements of the last century. From Koons’ kitsch photorealism, to Guston’s melancholy neo-expressionism, the aesthetics complex sensibility seems to work most effectively when, as with Picasso, its looping aloofness notes the inherent complexities and contradictions in the form. Artists such as Sigmar Polke or Richard Prince seem to recognise the psychological and philosophical permutations in its bulbous mutations, bloodless violence, and weightless falls.
The dark dots of eyes in Picasso’s portrait of Stein dwell in the black cut out eyes of ‘Ghost Owl’ (2012), by Baltes; its corona-like irises have been excavated into matt black blindness. Below, a slot in the immaculately cultivated surface prints forth a canvas tongue of tongues, each loop overlapping in a feathery Babel-esque babble, which draws on the pieces overall quietude to project an uncertain, watchful silence.
The implication in this work’s title, of the presence of an absence, or an echo of something once present, feels elementary to Baltes’s interests. Her works feel like a meeting point between these diarists echoes and her possession of materials, which, as well as their graphic lineage, connect with the formal restraint of minimalism. Her material sparseness contrasts with a contextual pull, or narrative expansiveness, which reintegrates the modernist refinements into ‘scenes’, or ‘moments’.
Baltes’s possession of materials is most refined in ‘Swans’ (2012), a rigid sequence of Judd-like stammers angling across the gallery floor. Up close, the dry minutiae of the work’s surface reveals the material to be carefully cut card, its gentle bends bringing warmth to their collective potential for interpretation. The sensitive phrasing of the ‘cygnets’ leaves you feeling strangely anxious for the last in line, as it dithers and a gap opens up between it and the rest of the bevy.
“..a rigid sequence of Judd-like stammers angling across the gallery floor”
Leafing through these observational ghosts connects you with an underlying note of reverence. The dramatic associations of ‘looking up’ to observe, are played out in both ‘Twilight’ (2012), which dwells on an enhanced colour dispersion of light through an ornate lampshade, and in ‘Discoteaser’s (2013) indirect reference to the night-sky. This low-hung piece asks us to kneel down, or at least stoop, to properly observe the ornamental surface, a religious gesture extended by the designs visual connection to Byzantine church ceilings. Less overtly, ‘dangledoo’ (2013), recalls a Rosary-beads rhythmic fluctuation, as coal-black spheres occasionally disrupt the flow of the grey abacus-like baubles. These could as easily represent files of digital data, the anomalies being Baltes’s ‘moments’, the exceptions to the general flow of imagery, forms, life. It is not so much a religious feeling, rather a note of sincere homage to something Baltes recognized as having depth and potential.
In ‘Ding Bats’ (2013), a painting appears to have stepped off the wall, kneeling down on two legs made from a picture frame. The frames evocation of an internal logic recalls Frank Stella’s seminal minimalist works, his ‘Black Paintings’. Baltes has established a careful introspection in her own work, which this reference to dingbats, the typographical devices used to bridge space grammatically, enhances. Her dingbats ambiguous articulation acknowledges the slippery and ill-defined currency her acknowledgements and references amount to, in her efforts to bridge the gap between random stimulus and her artistic practice. Her works need to activate this feeling formally, and the use of a broad, unbroken colour field on the canvas, here an intense yellow, moves the work on from merely expressing an idea to forming a recreation, activating a contemplative staring space in itself, that connects us with Baltes’s original experience.
The exhibition press release refers to an ‘unfathomable logic’ powering Baltes’s work. I found that the opposite is true, and that Baltes’s works are marked by careful and sensitive choices.
A problem that can arise with drawing on a cartoonish vocabulary is that artists can sometimes undermine themselves, appearing ironic or apologetic for their own seriousness. Where sincerity, or affection, is lacking in her subject matter, as feels the case in ‘Deep Thought’ (2013), the work can feel flippant, a kind of dry trade in dramatic stereotypes. Where the artist fails to take full possession of her materials, as with the chain in ‘Discoteaser’, where you wish she had absorbed the material more by way of a process, the tension of the work, its spell, can feel broken or diluted.
Where the artist trusts her instincts for recognizing these dramatic pivots, her work unfolds with darkness, humour, and a balanced, nuanced pathos. She renders the familiar foreign, in order to make it more familiar again, recreating in the viewer something of the smile you imagine rising on her face at the moment these works start their journey. These engaging pieces draw in something of the pre-linguistic immediacy of ‘children’s eyes’, and function, like the lampshade in ‘Twilight’, as a layered filter for and articulation of peculiar aliens, lore and doings.
‘Schnick, Schnack, Schnuck!’, Cornelia Baltes Limoncello, London 23rd January – 9th March 2013 Links: www.corneliabaltes.com www.limoncellogallery.co.uk