Teresa Baker and Jenny Monick

Review

Teresa Baker and Jenny Monick

By Leora Lutz April 21, 2015

On view at Kiria Koula are two concurrent solo shows of humble and curious works by the San Francisco–based artist Teresa Baker and the Brooklyn-based artist Jenny Monick. Viewed from outside the space, the works seem incidental and transitory, subtle and unassuming. Inside, illuminated by the natural light pouring through the gallery’s numerous street-facing picture windows, the gregarious color palette and the tonalities of the white monochromes are more apparent. The works are not separated by artist, but interspersed, creating visual complements and conversations; titles clue viewers into the artists’ sometimes poignant, sometimes tongue-in-cheek ideas. Surveying the space, it is clear that both artists use process-driven, pragmatic, straightforward approaches—where acknowledgment of humanity’s flaws and compulsions lingers.

(left to right) Teresa Baker. Nil, 2015; acrylic on felt; 63 x 44 1/2 in.; Jenny Monick. Daisy, 2010; oil on linen; 11 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artists and Kiria Koula, San Francisco. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Though their work is not explicitly spiritual, both Baker and Monick have deep personal relationships with theology and are familiar with several different cultures and religions. Baker was raised as a Catholic and is also a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa Native American tribe. Calling upon her experience witnessing how people relate to sacred objects, she developed a unique sensibility for materials and for observing viewers’ evolving relationships with what is presented to them. Monick became interested in Chinese Taoism while studying anthropology in Asia, adopting for herself the tradition of wu wei, which translates as “non-action.”1 Wu wei recognizes that in the moment of non-action there is always another action forming, without one’s conscious volition; action is in a constant cycle of doing and undoing that is beyond human control.

The artist Eva Hesse expressed a similar sentiment with respect to her work in a 1968 statement: “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions. What I want of my art I can eventually find. The work must go beyond this. It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.”2 This perspective is seemingly echoed in Baker’s pale pink and cobalt blue felt wall assemblage Nil (2015). Five feet high, the folded-over fabric is tacked to the wall with two plain nails and is mostly untouched, save for a few gentle acrylic paint markings in green and lavender. Two small rectangles are on the front, facing viewers, and more can be seen bleeding through from the layer underneath. “Nil” means “nothing,” or that which has no value or being. Clearly there is an existential message here.

Hanging next to Nil is Monick’s Daisy (2010), a vivid and expressionistic eleven-inch-high painting that in relation to Nil seems to allude to “pushing up daisies.” Other works in this series have similarly humorous titles that play with words, such as Standing spelled (2009) or From done til dusk (2009). The concept of nil also informs possible readings of another series by Monick created by painting entirely over old paintings, then applying a nonsensical mathematical methodology to place new markings. The titles reveal Monick’s mysterious logic: Thirteen evens (2015) or Every other odds (2015). The pieces incorporate bright, irregularly shaped squares and rectangles along the perimeter of a white field, with rows of translucent white dabs. Another work, Forty five one hundred (2015) is all ghostly geometric demarcations of shades of white, recalling Agnes Martin’s White Stone (1964). The lack of color indicates simplification and restriction; it is a void into which the viewer can project his or her own understandings.

Another series by Monick on raw linen—using “wrong math,” as she puts it —is a conduit for decisions regarding where and how to place shapes and color. Not entirely akin to sacred geometry, the activity is in keeping with her practice of wu wei in that the works reflect a kind of nothing-action, as the titles At 6, 7 sat (2015) and Before 6, 7 sit (2015) suggest. Bright yellow, red, green, blue, and purple half-circles in two different sizes are aligned along the edges of the stretched canvases, but their colors seem less important than the compositions, recalling Agnes Martin’s poetic essay “The Untroubled Mind” (1972), in which she remarks: “People think that painting is about color. It’s mostly composition. It’s composition that’s the whole thing.”3 Likewise, Baker’s large green piece Gnaw (2015) references banal activity, though the composition insinuates something more. The piece is more than six feet tall, made of vinyl mesh painted a loud green and accented with delicate periwinkle strips arranged in an arch near the bottom. It is difficult to not see in the piece a human form; it evokes a ceremonial cape, perhaps referencing Baker’s background.

Teresa Baker and Jenny Monick; installation view, Kiria Koula. Courtesy of Kiria Koula, San Francisco. Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Both Monick and Baker operate from a minimalist perspective, yet their work denies the austerity that is commonly associated with hard, geometric, abstract minimalism like that of Donald Judd or Richard Serra. They take the body and mind into consideration, creating contemplative postminimalist works more like Eva Hesse’s latex pieces or Agnes Martin’s subdued grids. Whereas Baker uses material as a vehicle for giving objects “life” and “presence,” Monick employs erroneous math systems and idiosyncratic instructions as a means to achieve accidental reasoning. Both artists describe their process as a letting go, allowing ideas to flow as uninhibitedly as possible once initial actions are under way, and then eventually stepping back to include us.

Teresa Baker and Jenny Monick is on view at Kiria Koula, in San Francisco, through April 25, 2015.

Notes

  1. Evan S. Morgan, Tao, The Great Luminant: Essays from the Huai Nan Tzu (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh Ltd., 1933), xxxvi.
  2. Carol Kort and Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2002), 94.
  3. Agnes Martin, Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Dieter Schwarz (Winterthur, Switzerland: Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1993), 35.

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