Russell Baldwin, a consummate artist, influential teacher, and college gallery director for 25 years, emerged as a major player on San Diego's contemporary art scene in the early 1960s. His most recent body of work, executed over the past seven years, is a stunning series of impeccably crafted, three-dimensional, wall-mounted pieces incorporating found and fabricated objects and text. Infused with irony and wit, these intellectually complex and multi-layered works comment on issues like racism, crime, politics, corporations, globalization, corruption, and the human condition. "Art is all over," Baldwin's trademark phrase, reveals the artist's delight in the nuances of language and double-entendre, as well as expressing other themes that interest him, such as the rigors of the creative process and the relevance of art.
One of the most engaging aspects of Baldwin's shadowbox-like works is the unsurpassed elegance of their aesthetics and workmanship. Objects and materials are chosen, fabricated, and assembled with the sensitivity of a master's eye. Raw canvas and wood have never looked more beautiful. Although Baldwin has produced an impressive body of art over the years, this is his first San Diego exhibition in two decades.
Baldwin prefers that viewers discover for themselves the multi-layered meanings and ideas imbedded in his works, but an explanation of a few of them may provide an approach to his art for the uninitiated. Indeed, collectors who have purchased his works discover secret or hidden elements years after acquiring them.
For example, White Sound (#12 in the exhibition), an anti-deforestation-themed piece, is composed of three primary elements: a rectangular box shape inset with a miniature, window- like diorama; an "ornament" resting on top of the box and suggesting a 18thi century furniture pediment; and a strip of wood painted and lettered to resemble the yellow plastic tape used to cordon off crime scenes.
The scene inside the diorama depicts a small section of forest that has just been subjected to logging. In the foreground, a felled tree, partially attached at the stump, hangs over a riverbank. In the background, the logging company's activities are represented by a cluster of jagged stumps. These are cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. The tree and stumps are painted a death-like, ashy gray and the raw wood of the "wounds" is painted white.
Incised across the window of the diorama are the words "nobody heard the tree fall." This is a reference to the philosophical question, "If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Keeping in mind the title of the piece, White Sound, other allusions to sound (and, by association, the noise made by a falling tree) become apparent. "White sound," also known as "white noise," is a sound containing every frequency within the range of human hearing and is usually perceived as a uniform static or hissing sound. In Baldwin's case, the relationship between the cracking noise of a tree falling and the scientific definition of white sound is probably more poetic than scientific, but, as mentioned above, he cleverly paints the raw wood of the tree wounds white to reflect the theme of the piece.
The pseudo-decorative element atop White Sound contains another allusion to sound: the word "silence" rubberstamped in purple ink across a miniature stack of lumber. Could this be the silence of death (the trees are not talking anymore) or of those who don't take an active role in saving the forests? It's for the viewer to decide. More obvious in meaning are the intricately carved and deadly looking circular saw blades that flank the stack of lumber like a set of bookends. In another ingenious touch, the saw blades, the lumber, and the cradle in which the lumber rests combine to resemble a flatbed railroad car loaded with lumber. This appears to also reflect Baldwin's interest in collecting antique toys and models.
The yellow crime scene tape stretched across the lower third of White Sound completes the imagery and literally and figurative ties everything together. The second occurrence of the word "crime" bends around the edge of the piece, so that it is bisected into two components: "cri" and "me." This immediately evokes Arthur Hamilton's 1953 hit song Cry Me a River and brings the viewer back to Baldwin's diorama image of the felled tree leaning into the river.
Little Lectures on Art (#10 in this exhibition) addresses a favorite Baldwin topic, the relevance of art. This complex piece contains many elements and allusions housed in two "glassed-in" miniature dioramas. A third element, a small shelf holding a bottle of "gray matter," projects from the surface.
The top diorama, with the words "Craftsmanship has nothing to do with art" seems particularly ironic given the impeccable craftsmanship of Baldwin's works. "I've been fighting it [craftsmanship] all my life," he admits. In Little Lectures on Art Baldwin is saying that while good craftsmanship may be one characteristic of some kinds of art, a great work of art is grounded in more than pure technique. It must convey ideas or be thought provoking. To that end, both lenses of the wire-rimmed spectacles visible through the window of the diorama are etched with the word "ideas" in a manner that they would be readable by the wearer. Behind the spectacles Baldwin's trademark phrase "Art is all over" can be seen subtly etched in the black background.
The lower diorama contains several elements, including reproductions of details from several paintings and a working clock whose hand makes a complete sweep every minute. Two statements or phrases are incised into the window: "The national average is seven seconds" and "A dialogue with the viewer must take place. What do you bring to this work?" In the course of pursing his love of demographic statistical data, Baldwin unearthed a particularly relevant figure: the average amount of time that a museum visitor spends looking at a work of art is seven seconds. This statistic is visually reinforced by the clock and, of course, relates to the second phrase. Obviously, seven seconds is not enough time for a meaningful "dialogue" to take place between a work of art and a viewer.
The second part of the phrase ("what do you bring to this work") addresses the frame of reference brought by the viewer to a work of art. Whether this includes education, insight, or intellectual curiosity, Baldwin neatly symbolizes it in the tiny glass bottle labeled "gray matter," perched discretely on a small shelf projecting from the surface of Little Lectures on Art. Incidentally, the bottle contains nuts and bolts, some screwed together and some separate. Baldwin cautions, "Especially if you hate a work, you need to question why you don't like it."
For those interested in minutiae, the works of art depicted in the reproduction details are by the following artists (left to right): John Mann1, Larry Poons, LeRoy Nieman, Edgar Degas, and Jasper Johns.
You, Too, Should Have a Cayman Island Address (#6 in this exhibition), is an indictment of corporate management and greed. This work deals with a proposal, approved by the Board of Directors and more than two-thirds of the shareholders of the Stanley tool company in May 2002, to move Stanley's corporate headquarters (at least on paper) to Bermuda. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands are popular with wealthy individuals and corporations trying to dodge taxes. The Bermuda relocation would have enabled this quintessentially American company to save an estimated $30 million in U.S. Corporate Income Tax on foreign sales, but was ultimately abandoned when the public outcry over the plan became too intense.
The five vertically placed Stanley screwdrivers on top of You, Too, Should Have a Cayman Island Address, have obvious implications for American taxpayers. In addition, Baldwin sees the black color of the handles as implying negativity. Double scoops of gold-colored ice cream, symbols of "double dipping" (collecting two pensions)2 and of corporate avarice, balance atop the handles of the screwdrivers. Miniature palm trees, Baldwin's icon for tropical island tax havens, flank the screwdrivers.
The most confrontational elements of the piece are two life-size casts of hands3 holding ice cream cones. These project towards and appear to be offered to the viewer. One of the cones contains a huge, gold-gilded double dip of ice cream, while the other cone is empty. A caption beneath them reads, "Oops! I dropped yours!" Baldwin says that the imagery and caption stem from an Esquire magazine cartoon he remembers seeing when he was a child, and in this piece signify the winners and victims of corporate scheming.
Russell Baldwin has a long and distinguished exhibition history and his art can be found in many museum, institutional, and private collections. The Visual Arts Program of the San Diego Public Library is proud to host this unusually interesting and ambitious body of work and hopes that library visitors find it to be enriching and stimulating.
Mark-Elliott Lugo, Library Curator
Corrections by Russell Baldwin