a movie made by Doug Trumbull, with Hellmut Wohl talking about the work of Joby Baker
Thoughts on the Work of Joby Baker
by Hellmut Wohl
My initial response to Joby’s paintings, which I’ve looked at for many years, is to his natural feeling for the matiére, to his infallible sense of the right tone and color, and to the fluency and surefootedness of the marks and tracings by which he defines form. He is a master of the eloquent brushstroke that simultaneously registers form and complex feelings. His figures and their expressive cargo are, as it were, absorbed by the paint by which they are rendered. Conversely, they emerge from the process of painting – from the gestural moves of drawing and dragging the form of the figure across the canvas, a process which the artist and the beholder invest with bodily, visceral sensations. The success in making such images is not entirely within the artist’s control. It depends on what the materials with which he is working will do and where they will lead him.
Jobys paintings and prints are not unrelated to his sculptures. They are reliquaries of ancient memories, meant to be seen from all sides, with secret compartments behind glass containing shards of bones. Their sheath of rust gives them a time-worn look, as if they had been found under the earth or buried in a grave. Like the figures and objects of African tribal art, they are studded with nails, or adorned with beads, pendants, amulets, and masks carved from ivory. In African and Oceanic tribal art such figures, when consecrated by a magician, acquire occult powers. They tame, divert, and ward of horror and evil. They may be set with mirrors, whose reflective properties serve for passing through the screen of appearances to the spirit world. The ethnologist Marie-Claude Dupré has said of these pieces, which were to influence the Surrealists with their poetic power, that
[in] the beauty that springs from their assemblages of apparently unrelated elements we may see the ancient actuality of the most contemporary art.
The art of Joby Baker is a case in point. It is concerned, as tribal art also is, with what André Breton has called
The age-old attempt to render the interpenetration of the physical world and the world of the mind, to triumph over the dualism of perception and representation, to go beyond appearances and to reach the heart of things.
For Joby, the heart of things is the agony, vulnerability and loneliness of the plight of man. He is not interested, he has said to me, in depicting scenarios, but wants to concentrate drama in a single figure. He does not set out to make pronouncements about man’s fate, but attacks
the canvas as if inhaling his breath before an apparition or hallucination.
The figures in Joby’s paintings and prints are depicted in situations of anguish, disfigurement or isolation. A recurrent theme in his works is the isolated figure of a man, a split figure, or one figure emerging or blending into another. Only the figure’s shape and posture may be defined, and the body and the features of the face blurred, obscured, or ravaged in carefully built-up layers of scrumbled paint. We don’t know and have to know whether the faces are hidden in despair, or if they are shattered and disintegrating. The dissolution produced by the paint itself directly affects our nervous system, and without further explanation conveys a sense of tragedy.