– Autumn/Winter 2004

Painter and Collector

Jennifer Allen

Collecting may not be the first word that comes to mind when one considers the work of Monika Baer. Working primarily with painting while dabbling in collage from time to time, the Berlin-based artist has created an extremely heterogeneous oeuvre that seems to defy the coherence and order generally associated with the collection.

In terms of her iconography, Baer has moved - if not jumped - over the last decade from quaint watercolour portraits to monumentally bright theatre scapes based on the Salzburg Mozart Marionette Theatre; from human and animal body parts floating on otherwise white canvases (accompanied by - what else? - a string of big teeth suspended across the gallery like a giant's pearl necklace) to a series of 'map' collages that mix found images with drawing and painting. The maps, despite their promising title, offered little indication as to Baer's directions since 2001: 'hunter' paintings organised around a central floating sphere, part head, part eyeball; a set of dreamy landscapes inhabited by lounging faceless female nudes; flying masks and birch trees, worked in collage, painting and drawing. With each new variation the critics, from Clemens Krümmel to Dominic Eichler, tend to be both beguiled and surprised. Noemi Smolik's reaction to the white body-part canvases dating from 1998 - before even more surprises were in store - is typical: 'Those who know Baer's early paintings might be struck momentarily speechless by the artist's recent work.'1

Given Baer's persistent will to wander, this momentary speechlessness is now to be expected at her exhibitions. Yet the reaction, however reasonable, marks a failure in the critical language of art, which continues to view painting in terms

  1. Noemi Smolik,'Monika Baer', Artforum, October 2000, p.105. See also Dominic Eichler,'Performance', frieze, December 2003, pp.86-89; and Clemens Krümmel, 'Smoke Gets in Your I', Texte zur Kunst, September 2002, pp.183-86

  2. In postmodernism, Craig Owens views Sherrie Levine's reproductions of male photographers' works as a feminist critique of authorship through appropriation and quotation. By contrast, Nicolas Bourriaud views such tactics as a form of post-production in relation to the dominant service industry: 'I think quotation is no longer an operative value. [...] Nobody cares anymore about signatures as authority markers.' See 'Public Relations. Bennett Simpson Talks with Nicolas Bourriaud', Artforum, April 2001, p.48. Craig Owens, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983, p.73. Baer's work seems to reject these positions to personalise the over-abundance of available images by collecting them.

  3. Krzysztof Pomian, 'Entre l'invisible et le visible: la collection', Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux, Paris: Gallimard, 1987, p.58

  4. For a history of Benjamin's collection and the articles he dedicated to his books, see Jennifer Allen, 'Préface', in Walter Benjamin, Je deballe ma bibliotheque, Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2000

  5. Walter Benjamin, 'Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus. Eine Rede über das Sammeln', Angelus Novus, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1966, p.177. All subsequent quotations from Benjamin have been taken from this text.

  6. L'Intime. Le collectionneur derrière la porte, Paris: Fage & La maison rouge, 2004. The inaugural exhibition, curated by Gerard Wajcman, took place at the foundation from 5 June to 26 September 2004.

  7. In these portraits - half-sculpture, half-painting - the human figure partially emerges out of the frame. See Die Brandenburgisch-Preubische Kunstkammer, Berlin: Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 1981, especially the royal portraits. Of course, this practice has been maintained on coins. While the body is treated as an emerging and intact whole in these historical works, Baer handles images as surfaces existing on multiple levels that have been 'entered' and 'exited' on the support. The three-dimensionality in her work lies in the embedding of these passages which suggest the restricted depth of a stage set, closed at the back and open to the front.