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World in the Balance

They’re both cryptic and quotidian. At first glance, Berlin-based artist Monika Baer’s drawings, watercolors, and paintings leave the viewer completely in the dark. One is left to search for a possible meaning – until one realizes that the goal is evidently the way: the creation of personal images in one’s own mind. For a long time, she was only known to a small circle of insiders; now, the 41 year-old artist is being honored with a comprehensive show. Following its premiere at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, Holland, it will be traveling at the beginning of March to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Starting in April, Baer’s recent works can be seen at the Triennale Beaufort in Oostende. Her works have been part of the Deutsche Bank Collection since 1994. Ulrich Clewing has immersed himself in Monika Baer’s quixotic scenarios.

Monika Baer: Untitled, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

A strange scene is taking place here. A young woman is sitting on the ground with her back turned towards the viewer. She’s naked and has gathered her hair into a sumptuous bun. In addition, she seems to be situated on some kind of cliff plateau. A huge wall rises up before her, above which a strip of evening sky can be seen; she herself is cloaked in a glaring, whitish aureole. Nearby, several more female figures appear to be crouching, but this cannot be said for sure, because they’re also on the verge of disappearance in the bright foggy light.

Gradually, other puzzling figures and roundish objects materialize that could be just about anything: balloons, monstrous, grotesque faces, world globes and planets in a faraway galaxy. The whole thing seems somehow unreal – painted delicately, but entirely fantastic in terms of the subject matter. Even the title of the work offers no help in understanding what it might be about; it reads, simply, Untitled.

Jean-August-Dominique Ingres,
The Bather of Valpincon, 1808

Yet despite this, some very concrete hints can still be found in the painting – references to the prosaic present, for instance, in this case the scientific sphere. In terms of the figure with her back turned towards us, it certainly recalls one of the most famous backs in art history, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Bather of 1808, now in the Louvre in Paris. This major work of French classicism has been described, analyzed, and interpreted so many times that it has long since transformed into a synonym of academic industriousness. And this is only one of the many paths that have been laid down here and that the viewer’s rational mind gratefully gravitates towards.

Monika Baer, Jäger, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss

This is how I felt with many of Monika Baer’s drawings and paintings, who was born 1964 in Freiburg and now lives and works in Berlin. As soon as I became resigned to making do without any certainty about what I was seeing, I began discovering an abundance of tiny messages and cross-references in what at first glance seemed merely vague and approximate; these then guided my interpretation in certain directions. Again and again, the fundamental concept of classical landscape painting crops up: traditional components of a genre-typical repertoire such as mountains, valleys, villages, or cloud formations, or sometimes the landscape limits itself to a mere allusion: a line running straight across the canvas, for instance, which can be understood as a horizon in an otherwise abstract composition.

Monika Baer, Jäger im Regen, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss

And then there are works in which the sense of landscape is so reduced that it arises only in the division into a clearly contoured foreground and a nebulous background, or out of light and dark zones, such as in the painting Hunter from 2003. What is common to all these variations is that the viewer gains an idea of a place that the artist then takes away again by adding what seem like irrational elements. These "placeless places" resulting from the combination of what are commonly considered to be meaningful and meaningless elements are essential attributes characterizing Monika Baer’s art. They enable her to literally hold things in the balance while at the same time escaping flat illustration or abstract randomness.

Both: Monika Baer, Untitled (Series of 12 watercolors), 1993
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

In 1993, inspired by Delft tiles, the artist created a series of blue watercolors that anticipated elements of her later paintings. In shades of blue accentuated in white on a red background, the small-scale works depict human figures in surroundings that remain undefined. They walk, lurk, crouch, or bend over, in short: they perform a variety of acts without apparent reason. Thus, the figures become ciphers – stylized forms and pictorial formulas that, like archetypes, stand for actions but that do not allow themselves to be subsumed under any meaning-producing context.

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