Since light and movement are the essential forces in Kristin Baker’s work, her paintings are a good match for an exhibition space that abounds in those very qualities. Baker made the four paintings in this show—her first solo appearance in a U.S. museum—specifically for the setting, a large, open gallery in a wing designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1981. One of the first areas to be unveiled in a renovation set to open fully in September 2011, the gallery is dedicated for half the year to showcasing work by graduates of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. (Baker earned a BFA from the school, in a joint program with Tufts University, and later an MFA from Yale.) The space exudes a formidable energy, with generous skylights and continuously thrumming escalators connecting to a curved balcony. It also doubles as a thoroughfare between the museum’s core exhibition galleries and its cafe, shop and group entrance.
For the most part, Baker’s paintings are large enough (up to 10 feet on a side) and sensually commanding enough—the pigment smeared, scraped and squeegeed across opaque PVC or clear acrylic panels-to hold their own amid the commotion. Full Dawn Parallax (all works 2010), painted on clear acrylic in sharp synthetic hues and mounted 15 inches from the wall in an open-sided boxlike aluminum frame, allows for extra play with translucency and shadow. But the structural theatrics of the painting’s display overwhelm the nebulous imagery, and the piece bears a disheartening resemblance to the kind of artworks often chosen for corporate lobbies.
The urgency and intensity of the other three paintings more than compensate. In Rime Affinity, Baker conjures the subtle, luminous tints generated by light striking and reflecting off frost—pinkish grays, pale blue, thin violet, chalky ocher and slivers of acid green and aqua. Within Refraction carries the strongest charge, its slick, hard-edged panes and planes, strokes and slashes stacked and tilted into a discontinuous field, with certain passages evoking the vague veracities of exposed photographic emulsion. Baker orchestrates gorgeous collisions of matte and glossy, translucent and opaque, the industrial-looking and the overtly manual, rippled and smooth, in a lush range of blacks—charcoal, ink, asphalt—spiked with greenish gold. The last painting, Matter Facture, is a dark, intense composition of blues and blacks, parts of which bring to mind the slick finish of automotive paint, recalling earlier work in which Baker looked for inspiration to the pace and danger of car racing. Overall, however, she has moved on from that subject matter. Baker’s new efforts show that a full embrace of the opticality and physicality of painting, stripped of most external associations, is risk enough, and potentially just as exhilarating.
Photo: Kristin Baker: Within Refraction, 2010, acrylic and charcoal on PVC, 791⁄2 by 1191⁄2 inches; at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.