The Letter Geisha Study, 2009 - Ink, Pencil, Gouache on Paper - 7"x6.5" (Detail)
By Matthew Kangas
This introductory survey of Gabrielle Bakker's art covering over a decade of paintings, studies, drawings, collages and sketches comes at a good time; it reflects the changes occurring in contemporary art with regard to matters like the nature of representation; the validity of traditional materials such as oil paint; and the role of individual vision in shaping responses to these and other issues.
Born of a Dutch father and American mother, Bakker studied at Yale University with William Bailey. Bakker's grasp of art history and the technical mastery of great European painters inform her every move yet never occlude her particular intellectual approach. The human figure is paramount, but also becomes a departure point for the exploration of cultural interfaces and mythic tropes that are subtly twisted and malleable in Bakker's hands. The results are an art of gripping power that retains a detachment of observation and touch. Emotions are conveyed through facial expressions, eyes especially, that direct the viewer into or away from the scene.
Given the generous installation at Davidson Galleries, visitors can recreate Bakker's imaginary museum of her own work. Upstairs, an extraordinary range of smaller oil and chalk studies, gouaches, and ink drawings prepare the viewer for the treasures on the main floor. The earlier works, Study for Leda (2001); Large Study for Truth (2003); and Diana Prototype (2003) are starting points, harking back to the artist's work after leaving Yale and exhibiting in New York and at various galleries for over two decades. Individual psychological identities are not as important as presenting possible mythic goddess types. In Diana Prototype, Bakker's huntress of Roman mythology casts a sidelong glance, perhaps seeking prey. In the ultimate painting downstairs, Diana (2006), her eyes are on the viewer as prey, adding far more disturbing implications. From the grisaille of the study to the radiant color of the final work, we see the processes of refinement and editing as well as the intensification of narrative.
In Leda Prototype (2005), a turreted castle hovers in the distant landscape and disappears in the final Leda (2011) where the assault of the Greek myth is enacted with the disturbingly passive compliance of Zeus's chosen one; both human and bird share shimmering white hair and feathers.
Working extensively in sketchbooks to discover ideas for paintings, Bakker has included a few pages like Bull's Head Studies for Drunken Minotaur (2010) that display her exceptional talent as a draftsman. Structure is assembled line by line, with shading assisted by white gouache paint. The Letter-Geisha Study (2010) is even more revealing, exposing the playful approach taken by the artist in finding the correct facial expression for the Japanese geisha used in the final work, The Letter (2010). Crumpling the paper, the elaborately coiffed young lady instantly suggests Puccini's Madame Butterfly seated en dishabille before the sea that carried away Captain Pinkerton.
With the carefully circumscribed history of Western painting acting as an undercarriage of allusion, Bakker's paintings slide in and out of contemporaneity. Rigidly constructed with the utter assurance of an artist approaching a peak of achievement, they undercut historical expectations through their sly mixtures of cultures, styles, and sensibilities. The figures inhabit a Bakkerian world of simultaneous confidence and uncertainty.
A series of smaller heads operates as an interlude upstairs. Cupid Studies I and II (2008) become Cupid (2011), accompanied by an amusingly "male-and-female" bow and arrow. Geisha (2009) and Study for May Morning II (2010) are unusually small (averaging four to five inches square), compressing and reducing facial expressions and gestures to potent signifiers of anxiety. In three single female figures in oil-Truth (2006), Reader (2007) and Girl in Red (2010)-each young woman is caught in a transported reverie. Reversing the feminist "gaze" attributed to male patronage of the female nude painting, Bakker's heads matter-of-factly confront the viewer, about to be told a secret. We do not know the contents of the book held by Reader, but we can imagine a passionate French novel like Dangerous Liaisons (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos with epistolary yearnings of seduction and betrayal. Literary allusion is only occasionally suggested in the Bakkerian world and never explicit.
That said, it is hard to resist unraveling the tangled tales suggested by four final groups of paintings, the Minotaurs (2005-11), May Morning I and II (2010-11), three Geishas executed in oil on panel with gold leaf (2009-10) and the bracingly enigmatic Studio Prototype (2002) and Studio (2005).
From the pallid serenity of the female figures to the threats and violence of the Minotaurs, Bakker has created a range of human experiences with interior and exterior dimensions. All are contained within the interlocking networks of her compositions. Theseus Slaying the Minotaur (2005) is transported to a realm of cubist samurai in armor. Echoing Picasso's interest in the subject and his spatial fracturing of the 1930s, Bakker reduces the minotaur to a pile of patterned Japanese textile fragments. Geisha and Minotaur (2009) is a pipe dream, literally, as we see the unsuspecting, pipe-smoking geisha about to be attacked. Begging Minotaur (2010) turns the tables yet again with the half-man/half-monster pleading to an indifferent courtesan whose patron is shadowed in black in the doorway. Drunken Minotaur (2011) completes the trilogy with the geisha abandoning a depleted attacker absorbed in drinking from an amphora. A white-bearded, naked human resembling Socrates nestles in the monster's cloak, as if violent myths were what supported Western civilization all along. As in Begging Minotaur, curved horizontal swaths of gold leaf encase and sanctify the artwork.
May Morning I and II are alternately images of possible elopement or abduction. Dressed in stylized 17th or 18th-century garb, Bakker's figures are spoofing the period's fixation with the ruthless violation of innocence seen in Dangerous Liaisons, as well as in Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1742) and Clarissa Harlowe (1747). Encroaching landscapes of leafy and leafless trees present differing versions of rakish exploitation. However, as in yet another bestselling tale of the era, Fanny Hill (1750) by John Cleland, such adventures were also occasionally staged and mutually complicit. Bakker retains the ambiguity.
Geisha/Surfer (2009), Geisha Icon (2009) and Lighting the Pipe (2010) blend adroitly placed art-historical references with the enduring image of the contemplative female figure. As if immersed in an opiate dream, the mirror in Lighting the Pipe is a giveaway: it implies the inescapability of self-absorption in an inebriated state.
The mirror transitions easily to the artist's most specific array of creative tools and symbols in Studio and Studio Prototype. The larger painting retains the limited palette of the study, reinforcing a tentative, open-ended planning mode. The subject is the unending exploratory nature of the artist's studio practice. The violence of the suspended arm holding a stick; the Classical bust of Hercules facing a horse; and the male torso model-all combine with a portrait of the artist concealed behind a painting of horse's legs. Meaning is dependent upon subjective, interior impulses, yet is mediated by the presence of society (the painted skyline) and the natural world (the cloudy view through the window).
In one striking image, Gabrielle Bakker restores the artist's mission to one of cultural retrieval and analytical enhancement. As the artworks on view underscore, representation carries a heavier burden of meaning due to the readability and interpretation of objects and figures. Bakker is addressing this in a way that few painters do, long on providing limitless imaginative possibilities while preserving the province of an ambiguous, individual vision of art's place in the world today.