MELANIE BAKER: Feastby Phong Bui
CRISTIN TIERNEY | MAY 6 – JUNE 18, 2011
If still-life was a legitimate force in the early development of modern art—as firmly established by the writings of Diderot, Proust on Chardin, Max J. Friedlander’s memorable essay “Concerning the Still-Life,” Meyer Schapiro’s equally compelling “The Apples of Cézanne,” and most recently, Guy Davenport’s Objects on a Table, a highly idiosyncratic reading of inanimate objects in their historical settings—one would think that the practice would have received greater appreciation beyond the legacy of Cézanne and Morandi, and would have accumulated more practitioners.
As a genre, still-life (“a vague term” Friedlander once wrote, with uncertain limits, more easily given a negative than positive definition), along with landscape has another history entirely than many expressive forms that explore facial and bodily gestures of human figures, which, for the longest time were dominated by mythological and religious themes. The still-life naturally provided the basis for which the evolution of modern art took shape. Ever since Cubism began with Picasso and Braque, and was elaborated further, logically, into the abstractions of Malevich and Mondrian, one can count less than a handful of painters who were committed to representational forms of still-life, including Walter (Tandy) Murch, William Bailey, occasionally Jasper Johns, and Gerhardt Richter. Melanie Baker, in her singular pursuit of such an unpopular genre, has undoubtedly carved out a space for herself within this narrow firmament. Without being invested in, let’s say, Matisse’s formidable copy “Still-Life after David Z. De Heem’s La desserte,” (71 1/4 by 86 15/16 inches), a modern construction measuring slightly larger than the Dutch master’s original (58 1/4 by 80 inches), Baker retains the familiar palette of the old masters, consisting of transparent earth yellow, red, orange for minimal glazing and a combination of terre verte, yellow ocher, venetian red, cobalt green, ultramarine blue, ivory black, and flake or zinc white, while consciously and playfully making use of different degrees of cropping in order to amplify the larger-than-life objects in their larger-than-usual space. With the four featured paintings of identical formats and sizes (78 by 86 inches) in the main gallery space, Baker employs the familiar yet effective Golden Section in her composition. For example, in “The Banker’s Life” a dead bird is placed on top of a tie, over a silver dish along with a bunch of grapes that dangle onto a tin plate, which stands near an empty wine glass with an orange peel hanging off of its brim and a fork looming from behind. Not only does the tie’s perpendicular placement echo the rectangular format of the painting (with the space above and to the right side of the table top), the tie itself may be intended as a visual pun: it ties all the objects together while the viewer pours over the objects and their slightly distorted proportions—it points to their mysterious relationship as a whole.
In its strong deployment of cross-secting verticals and horizontals, “Banquet of Reluctant Regulators” is striking. While a stack of loose sheets of white paper maintains a middle horizontal line parallel to the table top, the right half of the painting appears a red lobster whose color corresponds to a vertical stack of blood oranges, paired next to a half-filled glass of red wine, fortifying their vertical and horizontal movement. The floral forms that half appear behind the diagonal microphone are included, it seems, to break up and diffuse the rectilinear framework of the composition.
As for “Two Market, To Market,” in addition to the political references shared with “We Talk of Taxes, and I Call You Friend,” such as the colorless American flag barely visible in the background of the former and the prominent star motif on the side of the table top in the latter, both include a pyramid formation that anchors the composition: a robust ham and three conspiratorial baguettes occupy the top-point positions in their respective pictures. Overall, as lavish arrangements of luxury as well as simple food items in variegated and impeccable compositions that evoke our so-called “moral compasses,” Baker’s portrayal of the larger-than-life objects, along with her political undertone, resists our desire to revel only in the earthly life and pleasure of her images.