MFA shows its school spirit

Kristin Baker exhibit puts spotlight on SMFA grads

Kristin Baker’s “Full Dawn Parallax’’ is bold and entrancingly pretty from a distance, tough and vigorous up close. Kristin Baker’s “Full Dawn Parallax’’ is bold and entrancingly pretty from a distance, tough and vigorous up close. (Matthu Placek)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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Good art schools, contrary to the received wisdom, are good for more than just getting rock bands together. The Museum of Fine Arts — it’s easy to forget — has a school attached to it. And it has quite a history.

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts has played a role in the formation of some extraordinary creative figures, from Cy Twombly to Richard Scarry, from Edmund Tarbell to Ellsworth Kelly, and from Joan Jonas to David Lynch.

Hoping to consolidate its glorious past with an ongoing series of exhibitions that honor SMFA graduates of (roughly) the past decade, the MFA has mounted a show of paintings by 1998 graduate Kristin Baker. It’s not only the first in the series. It’s also Baker’s first solo show in a US museum and the first show proposed and mounted by the MFA’s new senior curator of contemporary art, Jen Mergel.

All in all, it’s not a bad way to kick things off. It’s rather small — just four paintings. But three of them are big and one is huge, and each one bristles with ambition.

Baker was born in Stamford, Conn., in 1975, lives in Brooklyn, and shows with Deitch Projects in New York. She grew up immersed in car-racing culture. Her father became a racer, and she later made her reputation with paintings that suggested the speed and fragmentation of hurtling metal — beautiful disaster.

Tires, race tracks, crowds, and car parts appear in her paintings as glimpses of a reality drowned out by sensation — the sensation of speed, color, movement, and fragmentation, all of it coalescing into colorful abstract patterns on canvas.

Her obvious antecedents were the Cubists and their mad Italian brethren, the Futurists, whose aim was to “exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap,’’ and to “hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.’’ This from the poet Filippo Marinetti, whose most famous claim was that “a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the ‘Victory of Samothrace.’ ’’

Certainly Baker’s energized canvases and bright, splintered colors seem to reprise at least the spirit of Marinetti’s 1909 call to action. But one wonders if, as the daughter of a race-car driver, her vivid images were not also complicated by fear, by the need to exorcise a premonition of disaster.

These four new paintings are all fresh from the studio and tailor-made for the oddly proportioned, light-filled space they occupy in what is still in the process of becoming the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. They dispense with figurative elements altogether, hitting the eye instead as dazzling constructions of abstract color and shape, as well as focused experiments in technique.

Using squeegees and palette knives of various widths, Baker pushes fast-drying acrylic paints over PVC or acrylic. Both surfaces — the first one opaque, the second transparent — are slippery. The results evoke speed, weightlessness, immateriality, light. Baker heightens the optical possibilities by using both matte and gloss paints. Indeed, everything in these paintings is geared toward complicating the response of the light to the paint and its surface, truly beguiling the eye.

“Full Dawn Parallax,’’ the biggest piece in the show, is painted on transparent acrylic over which ricocheting shards of pink, orange, blue, and gray light intersect and overlap. The surface is set back from the wall to allow the natural light through, as if it were a stained-glass window. Seen from the entrance to the Richard Avedon show — a considerable distance — its effect is bold and entrancingly pretty. Up close, it has the toughness and vigor of some strange new hybrid of Cubist collage, Abstract Expressionism, and Gerhard Richter’s mechanistic, late modern squeegee abstractions.

“Matter Facture,’’ another painting, combines rich, dark blues and blacks with shifting levels of translucency in ways that suggest the chemical aroma of glossy photographic paper printed with blurry images. “Within Refraction’’ also conjures the optical paradoxes of photography, but in a painterly language which sees charcoal and acrylic paint collide at speed-of-light angles. The final painting, “Rime Affinity’’ (the title sounds disconcertingly like a crossword clue), plays with icier, more opaque surfaces.

Baker’s shift away from race cars into more abstract, process-oriented territory feels like a sign of maturation. There was something a bit cutesy about the figurative references to race cars and race tracks buried in her otherwise dynamic earlier paintings.

The only danger she faces now is that her paintings turn into dazzling feats of technique in search of a true subject. I’m not suggesting that Baker return to figuration — just that each painting should give off the sense that it has a deep and genuine reason for coming into being. Not all of these paintings manage that.

The result is a hint of flimsiness that’s less technical than existential. Why — apart from a desire to explore technique — were they made? Baker’s paintings are good enough to keep us occupied while we await the answer.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

KRISTIN BAKER: New Paintings At: Museum of Fine Arts. Through March 27. 617-267-9300.