Baker Overstreet: Follies at Fredericks & Freiser
August 28 – October 4, 2008
536 W 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 633 6555
Follies, the title of Baker Overstreet’s solo painting exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser, exists somewhere between theatrical put-on and shoe gazing self-awareness. In architecture a “folly” is an ornamental, often eccentrically designed building. An example in New York City would be Central Park’s Belvedere Castle, a fairy tale landmark of eternal childhood. “Follies” is also the name of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical, itself a reference to early 20th century vaudeville revues. The thirteen paintings on view (all made in 2008) share in the multifaceted whimsy of the exhibition’s title. Painted in glossy, starburst hues of acrylic and latex, the first distinguishing characteristic of the set is a common black or dark grey background. This technique calls to mind the high kitsch of black velvet painting as well as the glowing, black light posters, which adorned many teenage bedrooms in the 1970s. The dark backdrop becomes a stage set for the real “action” of the paintings—an order of tight and flashy geometric designs.
The paintings lend themselves to the idea of a multi-tiered structure, part disco dance floor and part spaceship. The abstractions can be read as dimensional objects, with a bottom and top orientation, or as a flat pattern plane. Sequined Cyclone Sequence appears as a requiem for the old time religion of Coney Island. Combining a psychedelic maximal impulse with the restraint of a carefully painted bodega sign advertising ice cream cones, the painting throws itself into a readable architecture of forms and signs. The Continental Bathosphere, resemble a Masonic Temple with Jetsons-era columns framing a gilded series of orbs and hints of rainbows. An unabashed decorative energy is readily visible in all of the paintings. Circles and squares are outlined or dotted with smaller circles, sometimes collapsing the painting into itself, and other times gathering the wild abstraction in by the reins to resemble a coherent form.
All of the paintings radiate a smooth ease of formal decisions. Hints of past layers visible beneath the surface are the only counterpunch to a solid machine that affords little room for speculation beyond its shiny and seductive design. The label of “primitive” given to Overstreet and many of his peers in contemporary abstract painting belies a highly stylized, self-conscious approach to image construction. The perfect power chord is struck between the loose design of a sign painter and the drive towards layered spectacle. From cool to warm, neon to primary, the color combinations seem intangibly homemade and magical. In each painting’s spectrum, there is a boldness and density that bears similarity to artists such as Alfred Jensen and Tal R.
Many of the paintings’ titles convey arche nostalgia for glamour, decadence and the iconic visuals of pinball machines. Alibaster Plaster Caster, Sizzle ’76, Ball in the Jack andTechnicolor Chromolume all resonate as personal references to the lingo of 1960s and ‘70s culture. The paintings’ high voltage energy mixed with an implacable, hand-drawn symmetry results in a vaguely sinister authority. The line “fearful symmetry,” from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” kept repeating in my head as I walked from painting to painting. The pop of hot colors and ruler straight lines against the blackness commands an inanimate dominance of space. Mandala shapes and the repetition of forms lend the paintings the severity of totemic worship. Jewel-like and complete unto itself, it is form of worship that doesn’t extend past the painting’s flat surface.