“I want to take the sting out of vulnerability,” says Charming Baker at the unveiling of several of his new works on this theme in a solo show at Jealous Gallery. “I want to take the things we’re frightened of and make us feel better about them.”
Baker, (Charming’s a nickname from school days, real name Alan) is well known for paintings and sculptures of falling horses, ships on fire and rescue helicopters. Several of such past paintings are also included here. The inherent vulnerability and danger is often tempered with humour and his work is much sought after by celebrities and collectors sometimes fetching five-figure sums.
Yet this new batch of work seems a whole lot darker and disturbing. Take Partly Elizabeth, for example. The girl lies drunk on a bare, concrete floor, isolated and at risk of being exploited, not just sexually. The painting is a reconstructed scene of the type of image viewed by millions on the internet. It’s a statement about the loss of control of both oneself and of the actions of the people around one. “The idea that someone would first take your photo and put it online rather than helping her up first worries me,” says Baker. “I worry about the motives of the person.”
The painting is beautiful yet disturbing and provocative. Is it manipulative in the same way? I think not when placed in an artistic context. The same thing could be said of Victims of Gross Manipulation. It’s taken from a 1920s New York Police Department photograph of a murdered couple that someone has anthologised in a book after it was placed in the public domain, something Baker finds odd.
Baker has a morbid curiosity. He felt the couple looked like they were dancing. “It’s the idea that we lose any rights over ourselves at some point. I find it bothers me but interests me.” To make the point, he has manipulated the perspective and cast them as shadow puppets, hence the sticks and the title.
Charming Baker, like so many artists, is a self-confessed obsessive. Apart from sex, death, horses and vulnerability, the dots that you see on all the images so far are a recurring motif reflecting his fascination with the print process from ‘70s magazines, books and newspapers that used series of dots to make up the photograph or whatever. “All these dots making a picture is magic,” he enthuses. The dots are multi-functional, serving also as the pattern on the girl’s tights in the top shot, Ambulatory Appendages and on the dresses in the other pictures, emphasising colour and adding texture.
War is another obsession. His sculpture Fallen forms the centrepiece of the sculptural section of the show and is a tribute to the war memorials of Albert Toft. His interpretation is of an 18-year-old fusilier from World War I in a uniform taken from the time of the Battle of the Somme and carrying his Lee Enfield rifle. “Imagine having to hold your ground when all you wanted to do was run – that feeling of vulnerability is unbelievable.” Baker cast it laid down, fallen, so that one side of him is flat.
“Even the most civilised nations sometimes have to wage wars,” says the artist about his sculpture. He might have added that war can corrupt despite the best of motives. That’s the message I get from his take on an episode in classical mythology, another obsession, in which a Lapith grapples with a Centaur whom he has invited to the wedding feast of Pirithous but who’s worse the wear for drink and has tried to kidnap the bride.
The title, above, kind of says it all. But it’s a bit of light relief and effected by the familiar scratchy style and semi-opaque nature of the subject in which the flower motif in the curtain doubles up as veins on the horse’s leg.
Also on show are numerous bronze casts of ducks, chicks and birds originally taken from taxidermists. Most have been shot at, literally, during the wax stage so that they bear a bullet hole. Baker has done this to paintings too in past exhibitions. “For me, there’s no joy in making it as it is. By taking away part of it, we can add more to it, and to take it away violently you add even more. Then there’s a story behind it. I like a narrative.”
Narrative, I think, is the key to Charming Baker’s work. There’s just enough of a story in each piece to keep you guessing, thinking and interpreting in any way you want. But you’ll have to hurry. The show closes at the end of the month.
It’s showing at the Vinyl Factory, 18 Marshall Street, Soho, London W1F 7BE
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.