The Knife of the Artist: Painter Chris Baker and the Art of Imitation

Chris Baker . 'Pacific' 2014 . Oil on canvas .jpg
Chris Baker, "Pacific" 2014. Oil on canvas.

Chris Baker reads a lot of biographies of artists, from Rembrandt van Rijn to Erich Fischl. As part of his creative process, he also transcribes large versions of classic paintings in his light-filled loft studio on Linden Avenue in Carpinteria. "I love copying" Baker told me, and here was the evidence to prove it -- a giant "Las Meninas," an even bigger abstracted black and white "Night Watch," and a royal family group portrait by Goya. "The struggle begins when you lay out the project," Baker told me. "When you build" -- Baker was a contractor for several years -- "you have to draw plans. The preparation is all." Asked how this philosophy of method applies specifically to painting, Baker replied that to him, these large paintings that he copies and recopies are first and foremost "systems of shapes." A good painting of the kind that Baker is trying to create these days, as exemplified by his own large work "Pacific," which was just shown at Jane Deering Gallery in Santa Barbara, "involves the figures in space, whether it's a landscape or an interior."

These crowded scenes, and the mysterious alchemy of their shape systems, have not always been Baker's subject. As recently as 2012, the artist concerned himself equally obsessively with painting empty rooms, and he still speaks eloquently on behalf of those images of uninhabited interiors, saying, "a painting without any figures is generally easier to sell. It's like the picture is asking the viewer to come in, and through buying it, this space that the artist has painted becomes their room." So, why the shift away from these marvelously intricate, colorful, and apparently very sellable interiors? For his answer, Baker steps to the Rembrandt, and says, "I'm not naturally good at drawing figures, but I know that by transcribing these great paintings I am bound to learn something. One thing I discovered from copying "Night Watch" was that Rembrandt really mastered the moment. Look at the main figure -- the shape hanging from his right hand is his left glove, which he's taken off to make a point. In terms of the moment depicted in the painting, that just happened, and so did the drumming behind him, and so did a gunshot from one of the figures on his other side. It's like boom, tap, pow -- all of these things happened at once." Watching as Baker moves around in front of these large canvases, gesturing like a Night Watch captain to make his points, I'm struck by how strong a contrast this shift in his subject matter really is. You don't get 'boom, tap, pow' in an empty room.

Chris Baker | Courtesy of the artist
Chris Baker. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The other thing Baker learned from copying was something he calls "getting the whole painting active." "You've got to create a democratic surface" he explained, "there has to be energy and information everywhere." Although it's not the only finish he uses, Baker consistently employs a big palette knife to achieve this "democracy" of visual interest. He uses the knife not so much to scrape as for a kind of controlled horizontal smear of the still wet surface. Although the gesture estranges the representational image from its referent, it also activates the image. Baker describes how the smear works for him by saying, "David Hockney said that the eye wants a clean edge, and I agree, so you'll see many clean edges in what I do. But I also like to use the big knife to free things up. Moving the paint with it helps me eliminate the brushstroke, which can become something of a cliché, and that in turn allows me to not think too much when I'm painting figures, because I know that in the end, I can pull the image a bit and get that exciting distortion."

Baker describes his technique with the big palette knife in a way that recalls his enthusiasm for Rembrandt's moment. "It's very experimental," he says of the smear "in the sense that I never know for sure that it's going to work that time. When I set up to make that pull across the fresh paint, there's always the chance that I'll end up wrecking several hours of work. When it's good, it gives that art hit that you crave, that feeling of something great happening in a single instant. When it works, you get instant mystery and motion."

Chris Baker, Study 1.1 for "Night Watch" 2014
Chris Baker, Study 1.1 for "Night Watch" 2014.

Baker demurs at the suggestion that the knife technique constitutes a style, saying, "style -- now that's the word that would condemn it completely." But after reaching this Wildean moment of critical self-consciousness, Baker becomes self-conscious in a more ordinary sense, adding that he has "only so much" to say and no more about his work because "a painting should be seen and not heard."

No sooner has he said this than Baker's conversation naturally flows back to the wellspring of his current creativity, Rembrandt's "Night Watch." "You've got to understand that this represents the spirit of the reunited Netherlands," he tells me, gesturing at the carnivalesque group in the painting. "It was in essence a republic, and although there was an aristocracy, there was not a royal family or a royal court in the same sense that there was in the other Western European nations at the time. These people that you see mustering here, and creating this kind of chaos, they are an important representation of democracy." "It's total chaos," Baker says, smiling, "which is what democracy is."

Chris Baker, "The Night Watch Abstracted," 2014. Oil on canvas. 48x72 inches
Chris Baker, "The Night Watch Abstracted," 2014. Oil on canvas. 48x72 inches.

Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook and Twitter.