Thoughts on the Work of Joby Baker
by Hellmut Wohl
My initial response to Joby’s paintings, which I’ve looked at for many years, is to his natural feeling for the matiére, to his infallible sense of the right tone and color, and to the fluency and surefootedness of the marks and tracings by which he defines form. He is a master of the eloquent brushstroke that simultaneously registers form and complex feelings. His figures and their expressive cargo are, as it were, absorbed by the paint by which they are rendered. Conversely, they emerge from the process of painting – from the gestural moves of drawing and dragging the form of the figure across the canvas, a process which the artist and the beholder invest with bodily, visceral sensations. The success in making such images is not entirely within the artist’s control. It depends on what the materials with which he is working will do and where they will lead him.
Jobys paintings and prints are not unrelated to his sculptures. They are reliquaries of ancient memories, meant to be seen from all sides, with secret compartments behind glass containing shards of bones. Their sheath of rust gives them a time-worn look, as if they had been found under the earth or buried in a grave. Like the figures and objects of African tribal art, they are studded with nails, or adorned with beads, pendants, amulets, and masks carved from ivory. In African and Oceanic tribal art such figures, when consecrated by a magician, acquire occult powers. They tame, divert, and ward of horror and evil. They may be set with mirrors, whose reflective properties serve for passing through the screen of appearances to the spirit world. The ethnologist Marie-Claude Dupré has said of these pieces, which were to influence the Surrealists with their poetic power, that
[in] the beauty that springs from their assemblages of apparently unrelated elements we may see the ancient actuality of the most contemporary art.
The art of Joby Baker is a case in point. It is concerned, as tribal art also is, with what André Breton has called
The age-old attempt to render the interpenetration of the physical world and the world of the mind, to triumph over the dualism of perception and representation, to go beyond appearances and to reach the heart of things.
For Joby, the heart of things is the agony, vulnerability and loneliness of the plight of man. He is not interested, he has said to me, in depicting scenarios, but wants to concentrate drama in a single figure. He does not set out to make pronouncements about man’s fate, but attacks the canvas as if inhaling his breath before an apparition or hallucination.
The figures in Joby’s paintings and prints are depicted in situations of anguish, disfigurement or isolation. A recurrent theme in his works is the isolated figure of a man, a split figure, or one figure emerging or blending into another. Only the figure’s shape and posture may be defined, and the body and the features of the face blurred, obscured, or ravaged in carefully built-up layers of scrumbled paint. We don’t know and have to know whether the faces are hidden in despair, or if they are shattered and disintegrating. The dissolution produced by the paint itself directly affects our nervous system, and without further explanation conveys a sense of tragedy.
Words express. If an idea can be put into words it is expressible. But paintings are sometimes capable of expressing the inexpressible. Joby Baker’s work reaches and digs for that which words are unable to say. For he works in that chartless region of the mute soul.
Painting beyond the bounds is a terrible struggle. To have no map is a fearsome trap. Baker’s work shows the struggle and fear. His pictures shudder with effort. Not settled, they are deeply unsettling. When the grappling figure falls exhausted, it hovers above ground, below sky. It’s only surcease is limbo. Night oppresses, sun blinds, the figure is mercilessly prodded. It flees aura, crashes sound. Body tears itself from soul only to be captured by spirit. But by the slightest stroke of the brush, the quick sweep of the hand, capture may become embrace. Even as it is caught by the inexpressible, the figure turns self-embracing. Or is it self-defensive? All roads out of the picture investigated and found to be closed, the trussed creature tries to escape the canvas and rush at the observer.
Not to attack. It is to serve notice he has been somewhere horrible and wondrous. Destroyed by the unknown he sought to conquer, the victim demonstrates he has stumbled into a place where despair turns into hope. Where hope turns into a different kind of love. A love for some nameless thing so long unloved it threatens to destroy whatever falls prey to its nothingness.
He will not remain long out of the canvas. Once so appallingly enchanted, the vanquished figure can never be at ease in the freedom of the circumscribed. Manacled to the undefined, he has been stunned to feel the intimation of something returned. Limitless love. It is a bondage beyond words.