DePaul Art Museum (September 13–November 18, 2012)
A river snakes through most, if not all, of Carl Baratta’s landscape paintings. Sometimes that river is bloody or is on fire; sometimes a finger beckons from the murky water; sometimes ducks rest there. A river is a road to an undiscovered country, an invite to a quest. Imagine that all of Carl’s canvases are lined up side-by-side, rivers connected, offering a panorama of a still-wet utopia. The leaves and sky emit all the colors, every single one of them. This is a place ripe with visions. It is anywhere but here.
Driver, Take Me to the River is the artwork’s title in this exhibition, commanding an escape to the wilderness. Armed with a witch’s brew of freak, fringe, and folk subcultures, Carl wanders through Joseph Yoakum’s fertile lobes and rivers, over André Derain’s ripe red earth, past the brood of duck decoys from Roger Brown’s collection, beneath a Mughal sky.
To inventory Carl’s myriad referents is enticing, but the referents are layers of a bigger picture, which indicates that we are malleable creatures who crave transmutation of our base selves, and will enact that change through repetition and ritual. One’s eye easily meanders through Carl’s landscapes. More than that, the landscapes, in their design, are themselves an experiential walkabout through off-the-grid folklores and art historical fantasies, summoning the pantheon of heroes, ghosts, deities and trophies that are eager to slip into our bodies and regurgitate their memories through us.
Can one learn to be a folk artist? That question bites from any angle of approach, but as a strategy it is fruitful for seeing outside oneself, beyond the borders of the known. Carl is establishing the same relationship to his influences that the Chicago Imagists did, lifting the pure authenticity of folk art, without apparent irony, as a collaboration with his adopted ancestors. Imitation or cannibalization of one’s influences is not without precedent, appearing, even, in the famed folk artist Rufus Porter’s 1825 techniques manual for self-trained artists. There, he describes a way for artists to copy imagery, using a tracing, to improve one’s landscape design. The method produces an ordered, ornamental forest or, in Carl’s case, replicates the correspondences across painting genres. For example, the curved horse’s rump in a Gericault drama mirrors the lumpy bay coastline in a Nick Engelbert painting, making it a prime shape for inclusion in a new painting.
Making his own egg tempera paint is an important aspect of Carl’s painting practice, adding dimension to his self-made approach and further connecting him with the ancients. In this way, Carl patchworks many referents, from arcane to mass-media ephemera, into an alchemical pastiche that solidifies into a memory painting of his artistic inheritance.