Fire Man, 2019. Acrylic, paper, resin and ceramic tile adhesive on canvas. 48″ x 36″

By Phil Hutinet, East City Art

A new series of mixed-media paintings by Rushern Baker IV is currently on view at HEMPHILL Fine Arts through Saturday April 27.  In Post-World, Baker reacts with consternation to the current unease felt in contemporary American society.  Baker’s paintings vary in size from smaller 12×9 inch works titled Landscape, numbered from 1-16 and arranged in a grid, to much larger works like Fire Man 2 which measures 72×96 inches.  The themes of destruction and the possibility of rebirth tie them all together.   While Baker uses mostly abstract forms in his expression of this theme, certain works use clearly visible elements such as body parts like arms and legs, while other straddle the line between the abstract and the representational as the artist uses geometric shapes and faded angles to represent military drones.

The gallery describes the media used by Baker as “layers of digital collage, resin, ceramic tile adhesive and paint.” This initially gave me pause as the use of collage in mixed media work is often hit or miss—and, more often than not, a miss.  In addition, the description of the type of media used, like ceramic tile, digital collage and resin, always has the potential to result in a mish-mash of discontiguous forms whose parts detract from the entirety of the composition. However, upon viewing the work in person, my initial apprehensions were immediately assuaged. Baker has deftly assimilated these incongruent media causing even seemingly incompatible ceramic tile to coexist harmoniously with aerosol and acrylic paint.Baker’s paintings physically weigh a considerable amount.  Like murals cut out of a wall, they contain thick layers of plaster to embed the tile, aluminum shingles and resin.  Herein lies the secret to Baker’s technique—through an incredibly time consuming process, the artist adds elements such as tile, collage and paint, then sands down the plaster, pours resin and waits for it to dry in the hopes that assimilation is achieved.  If the desired result is not achieved, Baker removes, repeats and perfects. The transparency of the resin allows the additional layers of materials integrated over time to come through creating three-dimensional depth and a strong overall push-pull compositional effect.  While Baker’s works are meant to be viewed as two-dimensional objects, each possesses a strong sculptural quality which becomes more apparent when looking sideways at the canvas where the layers of material reveal the build-up of the surface.  Another effect of the resin is that, as the gallery lights shine across its surface, the translucency of the medium projects colors onto the floor much in the way that sunlight reflects water onto surrounding surfaces.

The inclusion of digital collage embedded amidst the resin, ceramic tile and painted elements creates recognizable reference points within some of the larger paintings, like Fire Man and Fire Man 2, but also in a few of the smaller Landscape paintings like #14 by using representational visual depictions.  Taken from the artist’s childhood comic book collection, Baker scans and enlarges elements such as character body parts, fire, crumbling stones and random forms.  Some of the collage appears pixelated after being scanned and augmented. Printed, cut and applied to the work, Baker assimilates the collaged pieces by using similar paint color adjacently so that neither element competes with the other, giving the painting a homogenous appearance.

Just like a comic book, many of the paintings have mostly bright, cheerful primary colors but without the graphic or cartoonish quality that one might expect. On the contrary, there is always a feeling of disquietude that pervades in Baker’s series as a result of dark edges that frame each painting’s picture plane. In addition, many of his paintings have an eerie reddish glow in the background, suggesting a hellish science fiction-like landscape that approaches just as the foreground breaks down and recedes.

Baker has produced a series of destruction landscapes in Post-World.  In our discussion about this series, the artist described the unease in American society, as a result of the current state of political affairs, as the primary inspiration for producing this work.  Military drones figure prominently as a subject, although somewhat abstractly, implying that, if you are the intended target, by the time one might arrive, it would probably already be too late to make out the full shape of what just bombed you.  This idea of immediate destruction—drones, fire, collapsed caves as described by the titles of the artist’s work—pervades every canvas.  However, in the midst of all the rubble and the chaos, rebirth and renewal are possible. Just as we are in the midst of major societal upheavals, which we are too in the moment to fully understand without hindsight, Baker’s paintings reflect this instability while subtly inferring that green shoots will eventually emerge from that rubble though they are not immediately visible. In so doing, Baker offers the viewer a glimmer of hope for what may lay beyond the perpetual chaos of the times in which we live or what the French sociologist Émile Durkheim called Anomie—the breakdown of society’s norms, standards and values—as a new world, a Post-World, rises from the breakdown of the old world.