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The crazy quilt 

Two local artists deal with historical themes in modern ways

Nancy Baker has one of the wittiest and most serious post-modern minds in Raleigh. On the walls of her Tire Shop, in beautifully painted replicas of 15th and 16th century illuminated manuscripts, an extra-terrestrial's head peers from St. Veronica's veil and stares through a window at the Nativity. St. Jerome has his traditionally friendly lion at his side, but looks down at an alien babe apparently deposited by a space ship lurking in the upper left.

It may take a minute to spot the intrusions: Baker has lovingly painted over digital ink-jet prints of the originals in gouache and gold leaf. St. Veronica unfolds her veil in a room through which we may see the details of a castellated landscape. An extraordinarily complex border of swirling leaves, twigs, fruit and a fabled beast surrounds the saint.

To Baker, "E.T." represents all people rejected and spurned as alien in any given society. Thus the image of Christ, despised and cast out, may well be replaced by Jew, Moslem, or African-American. The flying saucer above the alien babe in her St. Jerome is in the same position as the saucer in her "Nativity," looking down on the Christ child.

The illuminations are, however, only one of three different groups in the show. Four carefully rendered oil paintings center on the theme of the medieval castle, the edifice that we now tend to fantasize and romanticize, but that, as Baker notes in a brochure, were in their own time "bomb shelters for nobles, their servants and their property," separating them from everything "dangerous and foreign." Baker plays with considerable skill with the sense of calm landscapes and Disneyesque castles that we see in imaginations and travel brochures. Presumably, the alien is kept at bay.

In a third, and simpler series, Baker mingles past and present by ripping people out of 15th century paintings and illustrated books, and setting them afloat on backgrounds supplied by computer programs. In "The Hunter" a peasant, accompanied by an eager dog, trudges along a patch of snow while a rabbit is "abducted" by what has become the familiar white ray emanating from a flying saucer. Man, dog, rabbit, space ship and patch of snow are surrounded by clusters of brightly painted ribbons. Torn from his source, the peasant shows no surprise at the apparition above him. We recognize, of course, that the man represents a genuine human being, while the saucer is an excruciatingly familiar fiction, but since both exist as purely mental images they have a parallel reality.

There is a good deal of pure fun in some of the works. In "Hunter," a fowler sits holding his net in front of him. He is a careless dresser--one stocking is blue, the other red. A large, brilliantly colored bird cavorts to one side as though daring him to give chase. But there is nothing humorous in the enormous amount of labor that Baker, who is a workaholic, expends in her paint--greens, blues, gold leaf, reds, though all on rag paper, appear enameled. In "Birds," a figure representing "fortune" holds a crown in each hand. Around her swing a number of winged creatures--some derived from studies by Martin Johnson Head--that move in every possible direction, scorning the notion that there can be no more than two possibilities in our futures.

In the work of Andre Leon Gray, we have another collection, Power Play, complex and subtle, that makes use of found materials and yet is oceans apart from Baker's work in appearance and intent. Gray's collages at the April & George gallery deal, as always, with matters African-American, and carefully avoid anything approaching the elegance of 15th century manuscripts. He likes rough boards, old photographs, playing cards, mirrors, toy soldiers, buttons and knobs. We find a pitchfork, a crutch, a worn Bible, oars.

In pieces large and small Gray has ensconced a blackboard and eraser as a way of suggesting a major theme of the show: the ease with which African-Americans have erased their own past, accepted the status quo, and thus created angry frustrated responses on the part of young black activists. On a board at the top of a large wall piece--"Great Expectations (God Make Me Funky)"--Gray has chalked "Mass Historical Amnesia" above a black eraser; a black fist rises above the board. He makes his point even clearer in a savagely ironic plaque that reads: "Presented to INCOGNEGRO in Appreciation for your Dedication and Work for the Status Quo [from] The Powers that Be, Inc." Below are images suggesting the attitudes of Whites toward African-Americans: a diagram of a slave ship, a "darky" dancing at a Civil War encampment, drawings comparing the Caucasian head of the Apollo Belvedere with those of Africans and Chimpanzees--images that, perhaps, have affected the attitudes of African-Americans toward themselves.

Two paddles flank the work. On one, Gray has written, "I thought I lost it in the great water..." On the other, we find, ... But it came back to me."

Gray is most sardonic in dealing with the occasional marks of power accepted by African-Americans, but which he views as placebos--among them the black presence in basketball.

Dominating the exhibition is a large floor piece, "Net Worth (Catch 23: Playing for Keeps)." At one end of a small "court" sits a figure, its head a basketball painted black. Around it is a neckpiece formed of long, shell-like beads suggesting both a halo and one of the instruments of torture worn by slaves on the Atlantic passage. An unpainted basketball sits between its legs. In the center of the board Gray has placed an upright basketball trophy, but at the other end he has fixed a hoop, its net holding not a ball but a mocking, empty gourd.

Even political signs of power are mocked by Gray. On a paddle attached to a blackboard Gray has pasted the photographs of four black mayors; above them he has lettered "Black Leadership in America." But he has titled the piece "The Placebo Syndrome."

"If Baker is the more elegant and ambiguous and Gray the rougher and more intense, both are part of a post-modern movement in which going forward-making it new-has often involved going back-reveling in the old. Nevertheless, both are firmly fixed in the uncertainty and confusion of the crazy quilt that is the present."EndBlock

  • Two local artists deal with historical themes in modern ways

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