‘In the Land of the Giants (Spirals and Stars)’, is the first painting you see as you enter Jo Baer’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. The work shows Baer’s interest in myth, folklore, history and story-telling. She compiles references together, joining them like stars in constellations, directing onlookers in various offshoots depending on which references shine brightest for each individual. In this first work, a Grecian discus thrower catapults Hurlstones into the dark vortex of a black pupil, an eye which looks out, and which is touched upon by the constellation of Orion the Hunter. He is the dominating force within the painting, and is placed above the image of Baer herself, as a self-referential reminder of the relationship between truth and fiction in her work.
Baer uses her imagination to draw upon real events and folklore. The representational object at the core of this is the Hurlstone. Baer discovered the object when she first moved to County Louth in the 1970s. When she asked why there was a perfect circle bored through the Hurlstone’s centre, she was told that legend had it that ‘a giant threw it there’. As with science-fiction literature, Baer imagines false narratives within her paintings and these become so tightly woven as to become a form of truth to her.
Take the opening paragraph of sci-fi novel, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, by Ursula LeGuin:
‘I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling ... facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.’
Returning to the motif of the eye, Baer’s work contains scientific influences, citing perception, memory and the subconscious as driving forces behind her painting processes. The works of Carl Jung come to mind - the importance of dreams and mythology in human experience; how their themes and archetypes transcend time and culture, before history and civilization altered and obscured us.
The work ‘H. Arcuata’ (1971), two rhomboid blocks, made up of coloured lines, swerve over the top edge of the canvas. This is the work in Baer’s exhibition that best attests to minimalist legacies of the 1960s and 1970s, and exemplifies the importance of illusion and perception that continues into her later works. Her more recent dreamscapes, in part inspired by Palaeolithic cave paintings and their markings, lie half-way between abstraction and figuration. You can begin to discern lines that connect these different stages in her career.
The blank spaces which appear in many of Baer’s recent works speak loudest of all. They function as a space for the viewer to enter with their own narratives. We can learn from her works, that what Baer paints, and what we see, are extensions of our own experiences, driven in part by our subconscious.
‘A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face’. Jorge Luis Borges