Gender Constructs and Challenging Composition – Interview with Katherine Baker
Katherine Baker has a story is similar to many, including my own. After leaving her BA she felt disillusioned with academia and needed to take a step away. In the eight years that passed between her undergraduate study and the pursuance of her MA, Baker had worked in a non-creative environment while trying to pursue some of her own work independently. She found, however, that this independence had led to stagnation and she needed to find a challenging environment with which to continue her practice.
Part of the issue here had been her own maturation as an artist and the lack of satisfaction she found from the level of work and engagement she had during her undergraduate study. ‘It was too philosophical and I lost myself’ she tells me. In her two years working independently post-BA Baker became disengaged, stating that the obsession with the philosophy of art practice had rendered the work meaningless and irrelevant for her; ‘it was self-satisfying, but not satisfying.’
Entangled in philosophical frustration, Baker needed to take a step back from her work. Eventually, she found that the freedom and artistic engagement provided by regular life drawing classes facilitated a fresh perspective. This confluence with other artists was an escape, and a way to reassess her artistic approach. Baker realised through these weekly sessions that the figurative could not hold her interest, and her curiosity for abstraction was reignited.
The tendency towards the abstract was something that had always preoccupied Baker. She had enjoyed the freedom of her initial years of study at Stafford Art College where she experimented with approaches to textiles. From here it was a logical step to move to the BA in Textile Design, however, Baker found that all the freedom she had enjoyed within her Foundation Year was missing and left the course after a few weeks. She then went on to do a HND in Fine Art but, due to pregnancy, left early and took a year away from study. She returned to pursue a BA in Fine Art at Wolverhampton University which allowed her the freedom to explore different materials and she relished experimenting with sculpture and painting.
It was here that her frustration with the figurative emerged. Baker found that it had reached a point of stagnation – the figurative had nothing else to say. This, in part, was the inextricable connection that figurative imagery has with narrative. As viewers of art, we come with multiple preconceptions about certain subjects, and this is then a difficult course for the artist to navigate when considering what they are looking to convey in their own work.
This preoccupation with narrative, both connected to the figure and abstraction had been one of the reasons for Baker’s disillusionment with her own work earlier in her career. She found that her knowledge of artistic philosophy and aesthetic principles was hindering her own process; ‘I can’t make that mark because it means this.’ It was a difficult balance to navigate and Baker found that she needed the structure of the MA to help redress these aspects of her practice.
As such, three different lecturers advised Baker not to read too much. That is, to let her work speak to her first and then read accordingly. This would provide invaluable advice as Baker found the freedom to find philosophies that related to her work rather than create work as a response to the philosophies.
The results of which constitute the exhibition that is setting the scene for our interview. We are surrounded by a number of imposing works that have a cohesive, yet distinctive, presence. This is the mid-point of Baker’s MA work and the large scale drawings she has produced draw the viewer in, inviting speculation and contemplation.
The basis of this work started in the life drawing room, although through the various stages of abstraction this connection is not immediately apparent. Baker had found that within the life drawing process she had become less interested in the figure itself, and instead began to focus upon where the body and the architecture of the room met. It was the spaces around and between the forms of the body that caught her interest.
The work, then, developed from this point. Research into the history of the life drawing room, historically off limits to women, became a point of reference. How did the politics of the figure, its relation to the room, and the response of the artists drawing in that space influence the overall narrative? It spurned an interest in the space between the figure and the room, the point at which these bodies collide.
The abstraction was an organic response to the figurative imagery created in the life room. Much of the work that constitutes this exhibition was formed by taking figurative imagery, fragmenting it, and reassembling in a different form. As such experimentation with composition became a focus. Baker sought to challenge traditional values of composition and use the juxtaposition of marks to create tension within the work. It was for this reason that she decided to continue the work on paper as painting often led to predetermined compositional decisions because of the standardised sizes of the canvases.
Another crucial element of the work is based in the construction and concepts of gender. This is no surprise given the inherently gendered narratives that can occur in the life drawing room. ‘Gender’ Baker tells me, ‘is often considered from a female perspective.’ Yet, as a mother to two boys this has forced a reassessment of this stance. She began to recognise that the pressure and trauma that girls go through to be feminine and conform to a societal construction of female ideals is just as prescient with boys and the desire to conform to ideas of masculinity.
As such Baker was drawn to the work of artists and writers such as Grayson Perry, Judith Butler, and Simone De Beauvoir. She found many parallels in these works – that is the destructive nature of the performative act of gender affects both boys and girls, men and women. From this point the surface tension of the work she was producing made sense.
All the cuts and fragmentation within the work are comments on the supposedly ‘fixed state’ of gender that we are expected to inhabit. A statement on the inability of society to accept any kind of gender fluidity. The highly-constructed nature of the work is reflective of the nature of gender precepts themselves – so intrinsically tied to culture, time, and place.
Despite the appearance of complete abstraction the basis of all of these images are everyday figurative imagery. Photos of the landscape, the home, or the figure have been drawn, then deconstructed. The resultant pieces are then re-composed into several pieces of work. This results in the cohesive nature of the work, with certain colours, marks, and fragments appearing repeatedly. This adds to the complex element of construction, yet Baker states that to achieve this she needed to remove herself from the composition itself – the compositional decisions could not be aesthetic.
Given the nature of the work, and the strive to move away from traditional modes of composition, I ask why Baker had made the decision to keep a standardised square format for all the works on display here. Yet this too was a conscious decision rooted in our societal need to define gender, albeit in a less binary manner these days; ‘you can reconstitute you internal narrative but ultimately you are still confined to a standard box.’ That is, however you identify yourself there are still a number of constructs and expectations you may feel pressured to adhere to.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that in some of the pieces the tension of composition is clearly in opposition to this idea. As certain elements feel as though they are willing themselves off the paper in desperation of transcending this proscribed gender narrative. The use of paper as a medium, while initially being a practical compositional choice, is also of note. This is a fragile medium, one not adept at dealing with changes in atmosphere or too robust when being handled, is an assured reflection of the fragility of gender constructs.
The work on display here at the mid-point in Baker’s MA is visually engaging and satisfies on an aesthetic level, but the real value lies in the deeper introspective message that it sends. Constructs of gender are particularly prescient in the art world. It has since its inception been dominated by men, the male gaze, and the side-lining of women. Yet this is just a microcosmic reflection of the wider society in which we live. Gender is a construct that is inextricably linked to identity for so many people. A malevolent stigma that convinces even the most intelligent and enlightened among us that it is a cold fact of biology. As such Baker’s work and perspective is gladly welcomed.
All photographs of Katherine Baker’s work within this article are courtesy of Dawn Jutton Photography.