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Alien in the Art World

Nancy Baker’s installation at 1708 begs the question: Is it all for shock?


Some of the objects are produced with a mass-media mentality while others are laboriously rendered one-of-a-kind paintings. The still images created via technology feature one or two figures against simple backgrounds. These minimal pictures pull the same kind of visual punch as billboards. “Incognito” is a well-executed lenticular image (like a hologram, it animates when viewed from different angles) in which human skulls become alien faces. Although “Incognito” is a technical and visual curiosity that provokes extended viewing, its one-line delivery is confusing. Is its only value one of shock?

The video loop that runs continuously in this installation has a painterly and dreamlike quality that contrasts with the sharp focus rendered in the rest of the show, but its collaged sequences reminiscent of music videos also appear to operate on a quick-sell strategy. A car passenger dons a strange mask, the latches and locks on a door are quickly secured, and a dark figure runs through corridors and up a flight of stairs — these are some of the images that melt into one another. Again, the scenery is visually provocative but curiously meaningless.

Interpretation of “Alien Allegations” is further complicated by the many Renaissance landscapes and religious paintings Baker mimics to become scenes of more alien invasions. In “Temptation,” a painting in which she appropriates components from multiple sources of religious art, a horned figure in a Franciscan robe holds a dismembered alien head as St. Paul might have cradled a human skull. In other images mocking illuminated manuscripts, spaceships appear.

What gives? These things that don’t belong just won’t go away. They’re annoying not only because they remind us of things we’re not supposed to take seriously, but because their near-human characteristics are recognizable as human deformity. We can’t laugh them away.

Baker’s emphatic assertion of the strange underscores more than a juvenile obsession.

As an art student, she studied religious imagery that dominated masterpieces for centuries, but could never fully embrace the theology behind it. Jewish and female, Baker has stated that she sees herself as an outsider, an alien of sorts, especially in the art world.

If Baker identifies with these aliens, then her re-creation of reality is a bold step in forcing her own acceptance. The question is whether the ploy is a trick or treat. S

“Alien Allegations” by Nancy Baker is on display at 1708 Gallery through Nov. 1.

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