I had the pleasure of being commissioned by the Surrey Art Gallery to write a catalogue essay featuring artist Nicoletta Baumeister on the occasion of her exhibition, In the Realm of Perception, curated by Rhys Edwards and running Jan 19, 2019 - Mar 24, 2019. The essay evolved out of a long interview with Baumeister where we discussed her interest in human perception and commitment to painting as her medium of choice. We also touched on the use of irony and humour in her work, and how the turn to abstraction in painting suits her specific interest in exploring memory, experience, and notions of the real. The complete catalogue can now be purchased at a launch event being held tonight, March 14th, at the gallery at 7:00pm. You can also preview and download the beautifully illustrated publication online at this link or view it as a PDF below the text of my essay. All copyright for this essay belongs to the Surrey Art Gallery. Reprinted with permission.
“Lost In Transfer”
by Dorothy Barenscott
When we examine the world through a painted image, we are invited to perceive. It is through the act of perception that we come to discern, to recognize, to raise awareness, and to regard with attention. How and why and through what means a painting is created is seldom the focus. Instead, we are most often seduced by the talents of the painter, or the traditional mimetic function of the medium to represent some knowable reality or state of experience. But perhaps most of all, we are often seeking something authentic through the painted image, knowing that we are looking at a material object created by the hands of a human being. When Nicoletta Baumeister is asked what it means to be a painter in a digital world, she responds that for her the most valuable art is the one where somebody is thinking, experiencing, and discovering, not just replicating. Intuition and feeling, and trusting one’s own senses, are prioritized in her art practice. “Really good art,” explains Baumeister, “nurtures you.”
In today’s technologically accelerated and distracted screen culture—where the world of entertainment, news media, our family and friends, advertisers, and even the world of art, co-mingle visual environments— contemporary artists are challenged to employ conceptual strategies that reveal manifold mechanisms of representation and slippery notions of the real. Within this context, Baumeister’s desire to nurture her audience is driven by a passion to both raise awareness around the contingent and unfixed aspects of reality, but also to capture audience interest through the mechanisms of authentic human observation, memory, and attention. For Baumeister, the distinction between seeing, perceiving, and thinking is critical. This distinction, and apprehending what is lost in transfer between stages of experience and interpretation, are underlying currents of her art practice. In painting series such as “Seeing” (2002) and “Looking” (2003), which interrogate the nature of still life representation, to recent and multiple series of abstract paintings (2012-2017) categorized by titles such as Chaos and Order, Thinking, A Memory, and Pattern, Baumeister operates on the liminal margin between logic and intuition.
Baumeister’s focus is both timely and relevant and reflects a world that is at a critical stage of reassessment following the social, cultural, political, and economic impacts of globalizing technologies. In “Against the Novelty of New Media: The Resuscitation of the Authentic,” art historian Erica Balsom argues how the art world in recent years has rehabilitated a return to the referent and investment in human presence as a reaction to what is effaced in the newly emerging techno-environment: “The resuscitation of the authentic is… a persistent reminder that there is both a danger and a value in the rejection of things as they are.” For Baumeister, exploring the nature of perception begins with her early years as a figurative painter, where the careful and relentless study of objects yielded critical moments of observation. “I was painting a flower long enough to see it move” she describes, and with this awareness grew the revelation that no matter how much she attempted to isolate reality into one discrete picture, the full scope of her perception fell short in the fixed image. Baumeister’s personal observations as an artist working in the studio also extended to the world around her. In the years following her art training at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (from 1978 to 1983), Baumeister describes one transformative episode in 1985 when she travelled from Canada to Europe at the same time as the Air India Flight 182 bombing. As she attempted to make sense of the tragic event, she picked up multiple newspapers, all with different accounts, narratives, and analyses of what had transpired. “What struck me,” she recounts, “was that I was seeing objective reporting, but all the reporting had something different, and I was left grasping what was real and objective.”
For the past century and a half, painting has been at the center of a struggle over representational power of precisely the kind Baumeister is invested in. A firm underpinning to Baumeister’s approach—exploring the disconnection between objective reality and subjective experience—connects her to a rich history of avant-garde artists who explored the possibilities, challenges, and limits to traditional painting and drawing. The turn to increasing abstraction and expressionism challenged the mimetic tradition of picture composition associated with painting from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century. This accompanied seismic shifts in the twentieth century as a result of new media and industrializing technologies. Free from rules and predictable referents connected to the long history of realist painting, the move towards abstraction and expressionism allowed a new generation of artists, such as those associated with the Fauves, Cubists, Russian Suprematists, German and Austrian Expressionists, and American Abstract Expressionists, to channel pure will and explore dimensionality and a range of human sensorium in new and unexpected ways. In terms of these formal experiments, Baumeister strongly identifies with the colour palette and sinuous lines of Viennese Secession painter Egon Schiele, for example. Traces of Schiele’s influence can be found in many of her watercolour paintings such as Like the Wind Knows the Tree (1994), while her love for the freely-scribbled, playful, graffiti-like works of Cy Twombly emerge in her “Pattern” series of abstract acrylics (2012-2015). Drawing, in particular, is the connective tissue in Baumeister’s art practice, authenticating and grounding the external experience of the world through mark-making.
In terms of content, Baumeister finds inspiration in another related group of twentieth century avant-garde artists—the Dada and Surrealists— who worked to disrupt the representation of stable objects through strategies of satire, irreverence, and the upending of expectations around art and the role of the artist. Baumeister references, for example, Berlin Dada artist George Grosz, whose drawings and paintings ruthlessly critiqued German society as it gave way to Nazi rule. Not surprisingly, Baumeister aligns her own political and social interests as an artist with that of Grosz, encouraging her audience to pay closer attention, and, in her own words, “read the fine print” in a world that is not always as it appears. Baumeister also raises the importance of Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte, whose famous work The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (1929) reveals the ever-present chasm between language, image, and meaning. Magritte’s proposition finds deep resonance in several of Baumeister’s works, perhaps most poignantly in her watercolour painting Avalanche (1997) which re-presents and playfully disassembles the semiotics of a tourist postcard.
Turning closer to home, Baumeister is well situated in a city that often prizes a more conceptual approach to art. And while as a painter she has not taken up the camera, motion pictures, or the screen as directly as most artists associated with Vancouver photo-conceptualism, Baumeister is closely aligned with many concerns and interests among a range of Lower Mainland artists through explorations into the crisis of representation and the desire to subvert signs associated with the landscape and human environment. Baumeister’s featured art work for the exhibition, One of a Kind? (2017), offers one such potent example. Arranged as a large-scale piece made up of fourteen digitally printed canvases surrounding an original oil painting, the work becomes apparent to the viewer upon closer observation when it is realized that the content printed on each of the canvasses is a digital copy of the oil painting. As Baumeister explains, the subject of the original painting—dahlia flowers — was connected both to her online identity as a floral painter (the paintings she sells to a wide public to earn a living), and to a subject matter that she had learned to reproduce through many years of repetitive composition and multi-media formats (graphite, watercolour, acrylics, and oil). Repetition and the copy were foremost in her mind when she conceived the piece, but also, as she describes, “the problem of authenticating what occurs in the real world.” Sharing examples with me, ranging from the problem of locating the original source of honey (sometimes marketed as originating from places that don’t actually have honey bees), to the difficulty of differentiating synthetic from naturally made fabrics, Baumeister’s intention was to replicate a similar process in One of a Kind?. Audiences would be confronted with the question of what changed and/or was lost in the move from her original handmade painting to the enlarged digital facsimile made by a machine.
One of a Kind? offers an important meditation on questions of the original and even a reassessment of how Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura—the uniqueness and aesthetic experience associated with being in the presence of an original work of art—can be recast in a twenty-first century world. As Balsom argues, “understanding what counts as ‘art after the internet’ might necessitate expanding one’s purview far beyond artworks produced through digital means.” At the same time, the work is deeply ironic, evoking questions and even cynical reflections on an art world and emerging generation of artists that appear to be losing something in a world where scanning, feeds, and fake news supplant deeper reading, visual literacy, and historical perspective. As Baumeister and I discuss at some length, there is a sense that something deeper, more embodied, and truly lived and experienced, is desired by many. “Time is the only commodity you have,” Baumeister offers, “and it’s how you spend it that is so important. I keep watching these young kids scanning as opposed to living; and I know enough about perception to know that the things we take in are what we ultimately use to create structures and put all other information onto. And if the structure is already filtered through someone else’s lens, and not real, as in experienced through your own senses, how do you authenticate something?” Indeed, the question of how and to what ends art will be created, produced, and disseminated in the future appears closely tied to similar crises around representation, time, and mechanisms of industrialization experienced over a century ago. This time, however, the stakes appear much higher, with spatial and temporal dislocations fundamentally recasting the world of human perception. As internet artist Brad Troemel argues in “Art After Social Media,” “…for the generation of artists coming of age today, it’s the high-volume, high paced endeavour of social media’s attention economy that mimics the digital economy of stock trading… For these artists, art is no longer merely traded like a stock—it is created like one too.”
What can painting teach us today? This is one of the enduring questions we are left with when encountering In the Realm of Perception. And while it is true that painting has faced pronouncements of its imminent death many times over the past half century, there is something clearly timely and deeply significant about studying the nature of perception through this particular medium. As Art historian David Joselit has suggested, pointing to the “transitive” nature of our world today, a world in which digital networks routinely translate cultural artifacts into code, there is something to behold and learn when a body of painting “is submitted to infinite dislocations, fragmentations, and degradations.” Clearly, as Baumeister observes, there are many undiscovered connections yet to be made and the capacity of art to nurture individuals goes hand in hand with human connection, “For me, my analog world is real to me, it comes from my senses, and I’m certain that is how we authenticate and ground our external experience of our world… I’m always bringing it back to that when I’m painting. I want to create a map of sorts, of something that I feel, I see, I hear, I think, and try to distill the proper components so that you could read the same thing, if you wanted to, or create a paradigm where the relationship between the items creates a meaning.”
 See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt. New York, Schocken, 1969, 217-259.
 See for example Douglas Crimp, “There is No Final Picture: A Conversation Between Philip Kaiser and Douglas Crimp,” in Painting on the Move, ed. Bernhard Mendes et al (Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel and Schwabe, 2002), 171-179.