Jonathan Baldock: Grave Goods
On ViewNicelle Beauchene Gallery
March 3 – April 2, 2022
Any artist worth their salt spends their career striving to achieve a visual language all their own. It is a statement that sounds so obvious as to be meaningless, but is far easier said than achieved; the line between a contemporary artwork that’s in productive dialogue with past and present practices and one that’s just plain derivative and/or irrelevant is incredibly fine, and tricky to tread. Every artistic practice references, but with varying degrees of subtlety, rigor, and success. Whether through pure imitation, parody, pastiche, or refined homage, all artists engage in a dialogue with art history and with their peers, whether they want to fully acknowledge that or not.
In his current show at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, British artist Jonathan Baldock offers a masterclass in navigating this difficult creative terrain. The work here quotes liberally from a broad stable of references and influences, from Bauhaus theater and early Renaissance painting to northern European folklore and 70s pop songs. His range of techniques and processes are just as catholic—Baldock turns his hand to appliqué, tapestry, ceramics, and weaving. In the hands of a less capable artist, it could all very easily become a blurry, art historical hodgepodge. However, thanks to the artist’s deft sensitivity to vernacular histories of craft, folklore, theater and ritual, his technical prowess, and, crucially, his dark, infectious sense of humor, this heady mix of references becomes engaging rather than overbearing.
Two large, neatly hand-stitched wall hangings greet us first. Made from hessian and cotton candy-toned felt, Seasons in the Sun and In Your Face (both 2022) unabashedly reference early Renaissance painting with their millefleur-inspired flowers and compositions inspired by a frieze and an altarpiece. In a defiantly contemporary flourish, mouthless heads and ceramic hands seem to be trying to burst forth from their two-dimensional dwellings, hinting at sensuality, even fetishism. Baldock’s longstanding interest in the revolutionary aesthetic of Bauhaus theater (think bright, geometric costumes chock-full of colorful symbolism) exerts a loud presence, too. His titles are also mined from his intricate palette of cultural references: Seasons in the Sun taken from the 1973 Terry Jacks song about a dying man bidding farewell to his loved ones, written with Jacks’s terminally ill best friend in mind. It’s a peppy but profound tune, a latent reference to death and grief in pop form that neatly encapsulates Baldock’s visceral yet culturally attuned approach to death and the rituals that surround it.
As is to be expected from a show entitled Grave Goods, death and dying provide the whole show with its conceptual backbone. Smaller wall pieces—squashed ceramic faces, feet, fingers tied to hessian backdrops, are entitled “Reliquaries,” as in containers for holy relics. His nine stoneware vessels are also fleshy, carnal, with the cast ceramic hands, feet and digits that poke out of them adding yet more corporeality. They’re colorful as hell, from the cobalt blue foot hanging from Boo-Boo to the deep crimson red of Unfurl (both 2022), which has something of the squashed internal organ about it. It’s all extremely icky but also kind of lickable. Each of these vessels and reliquaries also contains funereal herbs—rosemary, lavender, wormwood, mugwort, lemon balm—bringing an olfactory experience to the work. These had largely faded by the time I visited a couple of weeks after the show opened, though that wasn’t as disappointing as you might imagine. The very act of sticking your freshly unmasked nose into a voluptuous piece of stoneware to try to catch a whiff of yarrow flower forces you to relate to it in a startlingly intimate way.
Traces of the artist’s hand and, for that matter his body, are everywhere: one of the sculptures has been brushed with what we assume are three of Baldock’s fingers, while many of the cast body parts, from tongues and ears to feet and fingers, are his own. This all lends a genuine intimacy to the work; nothing like a cast form of an artist’s own big toe or a squelched, ceramic version of his face to encourage an affinity between artwork and viewer. The sheer range of visual references further builds this sense of familiarity, given that there’s something here for so many of us to connect with; Bauhaus aficionados are likely to feel drawn to Baldock’s use of bold symbolism, his depictions of some of the ickier parts of the human form will presumably fascinate anyone with an interest in anatomy, and those with a love of craft will assumedly be engaged by the quality and breadth of his craftsmanship.