Matter Out of Place: Domestic and Wild Scenes from Joan Baldwin’s Inner World

In Baldwin’s October 2021 exhibition, the natural and the domestic world are at odds—and there are no human subjects in sight.

In our lingering climate (of) crisis, interruptions and inconveniences come as no surprise. In just the past month, we’ve seen persistent supply chain hiccups, a 6-hour Facebook outage in early October, and the further acceleration of the “Great Resignation,” with an unprecedented number of Americans quitting their jobs. Given the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis, “normality” seems silly to reach for at this point. There are so many disruptions at play these days that there is a slim chance of making sense of it all. Sometimes, the most we can do is sit with the strangeness.

Joan Baldwin’s October exhibition at the Kingston Gallery does just that. Her two exhibits “Above and Beyond” (Main Gallery) and “Uninvited Guests” (Center Gallery) are a meditation on ‘matter out of place,’ to borrow anthropologist Mary Douglas’ term. In the Main Gallery, “Above and Beyond” shows a series of figurative yet surreal landscapes with couches and crows vying for dominance. Meanwhile, “Uninvited Guests” in the Center Gallery promises a three-wall installation resembling the window views of Baldwin’s Cape Cod home, with moths and other odd creatures sneaking in. The two shows are quite different in form, yet both promise worlds where our expectations have been suspended in favor of something stranger. These are worlds that beg to be unraveled.

Throughout the show, there is a subject that keeps reappearing: furniture. This comes from Joan Baldwin’s own background as an illustrator. Before pursuing work as a full time artist, she made artwork for the furniture industry and for a newspaper. While she’s retired from commercial illustration now, Baldwin still finds herself drawn to painting furniture. Now, she has the creative freedom to put a surreal twist on it.

“When I was doing the illustration for the trade shows,” Baldwin said in an interview, “I had to have it exactly the way [the object] looked. And so I was really kind of constrained.” In her current work, she allows herself to be more spontaneous. With this latest exhibit she has tried to emulate the process of Gustav Klimt, whom she admires for “letting the brush go where it wants to go without him planning the strokes.” In the bottom of Ruffles, we see this spontaneity in action. As if abandoning the figurative project mid-stroke, Joan’s brushstrokes dash off, escaping the confines of their literal origins and leaving the subject with a few metaphorical flourishes. These “ruffles” merge into the landscape surrounding the chair, and, like the show as a whole, the painting becomes a hybrid of literal and surreal impulse. 

Ruffles, oil on canvas, 2020.

One of Joan’s main inspirations is her Cape Cod house, which she appreciates for its untamed beauty: “you can go for a long walk and not even run into anybody,” she said of it. “It’s really beautiful and kind of wild.” 

Despite Baldwin’s clear soft spot for human-free landscapes, there’s still an element of humanity in her work. This human influence is most evident in Garden Toast. In the painting, a wine bottle spills out onto an empty pink chair, with a matching set of pink heels haphazardly parked in the grass. This landscape has touches of the human—the shoes, the wine—and the chair itself is a charming substitute for the human subject. According to Baldwin, when she first put the furniture into her landscapes, she was initially surprised that the chairs she painted “took on a personality of their own.” Presented with a landscape that was nonetheless full of human influence, I was free to invent a narrative for the painting. 

Garden Toast, oil on canvas, 2020.

While the absence of humans allows for narrative world-building in “Above and Beyond,” it also allows insects and creatures to sneak in in their place — something that Baldwin’s Artist Statement says can “make your life miserable.” We see this in “Uninvited Guests.” In the Center Gallery, a series of fantastical creatures sneak into a recreation of Baldwin’s Cape Cod Home, a setup she has described as “almost like a theater set.” Wild creatures, for Baldwin, are not compatible with the order and organization of the human world. Still, she asserts this wildlife is “worth studying, labeling, categorizing and mounting on boards with pins.” 

Uninvited Guests. Installation view.

This statement is worth unpacking: why the need to study these creatures scientifically? After the whimsical and magical “Above and Beyond,” it is unusual to introduce the scientific method. Despite the uninhibited boundary crossing between the domestic and the wild in “Above and Beyond,” this statement reveals a wish to keep the wilderness under control. It is an urge to scientifically understand, I think, what can only be intuitively and emotionally understood. It’s reminiscent of our cultural moment, where so much is inexplicable and out of place. (Note: these works were produced in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.) I see this scientific urge as a desire to understand and cope with the ever-present crises of this age. With some categorization and some science, Baldwin might hope (as do we) that we can solve or at least understand the disruptions we’ve gone through. 

Part of this scientific urge may come from aging and grief. In our interview, Baldwin shared that “As you get older, the older generation dies, and then you start accumulating other people’s things. It’s not like we pick them out. As you get older and you look around, you go, ‘wow, we have this strange combination of things we’ve gotten from other people.’” Thus, the familiar space of the home becomes increasingly filled with memorabilia from other’ past lives. Objects loaded with memories are stiltedly fit into someone else’s life. These objects are the true uninvited guests, and they haunt Baldwin’s work.“It brings back memories, you know? I know that they would want us to treasure what they’ve given us or put some value to it, not just give it away to somebody else,” she says. Although these objects are uninvited, that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. Baldwin’s show is an imaginative attempt to make sense of that which is so clearly out of place. 

A personal favorite is Morning Moth. If the rest of the show is mystifying in its balance between the domestic and wild, this work is a clear exception. Wild branches and leaves easily embrace the subject of the painting, a cozy cabin-like space—creating a frame-within-a-frame around the subject that is almost nest-like. In this snug frame, a larger-than-life moth, small bird, and miniscule chair coexist, oddly yet peaceably. Though this surreal sense of scale might have been puzzling, by the time I had reached this work I embraced its logic immediately. While most of the work in “Above and Beyond” elicited questions, this work presented a clear and friendly opportunity to admire. 

Morning Moth, oil on canvas. 2020.

In Baldwin’s show, certain questions seem to want to be asked: What are the rules of these strange mindscapes? Can we feel at home here? After a walk through the Kingston’s October exhibit, asking these questions becomes more important than answering them. Baldwin’s exhibition is fit for coping with a world that has stopped making sense. It is a pleasant and puzzling surprise. In this whimsical series, Baldwin has invited us all into a fantastically strange and refreshing world—and it is an invitation that I wholeheartedly recommend you accept.

Baldwin’s show is on view through October 31. Catch it before it’s gone!

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