The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
When Doug Baulos explained that his most recent installation project explores the idea of yellow, I asked myself what the term might possibly mean? Yellow stands as an unusual and unique color. One might speak of the sun, or of cowardice, and somehow this single color is supposed to stand as the signifier of both. For Baulos, however, the color yellow has more personal meanings. It suggests the yellow cast of insect lights on summer evenings, and at the same time recalls the color of phlegm, something coughed up from deep inside and redolent with foreboding.
I begin here because the works that make up Baulos’ Yellow installation use these two opposing poles as starting points. In his “creepy crawly” piece, for example, we see what appears to be a pair of lungs comprised almost entirely of sinister, insidious elements which in many ways recall Baulos’ late father’s struggle with lung cancer. We see how what starts as a child’s toy transforms into a more subtle and complex element of an extremely intimate work. Here, amoeba, squid and other tentacled animals and insects congest space, physically occupying space in precisely the same way that cancers occupy bodies. Particularly startling here is Baulos’ transformation of materials, for while these creatures are most commonly made of “goo”, the alteration from a soft, sticky substance to the brittleness of ceramics suggests the ways in which disease metaphorically calcifies and chokes the body. The candles, which flicker softly, suggest both breath and the finite nature of terminal illness – they both cast light, which signifies hope, and burn out, signifying loss. One might consider here the roles candles play in traditional mourning practices across many western and non-western cultures.
These works contain further, subtler, references to mortality. In many of the smaller collages, for example, we find references to birds. Baulos spoke of a dream in which his late grandmother appeared as a blackbird. He mentioned that she had often called him a “tufted titmouse”. In the collages, we see birds that we commonly associate with death and demise, in particular the raven. One might think here of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of the same name, a bleak lament for lost love.
Baulos’ large-scale collages map the body and in many ways stand as signposts marking its decay. Using familiar imagery from medical textbooks (and one might recall here the well-known Encyclopedia Britannica overlays), Baulos presents male and female bodies in various stages of unbecoming. Perhaps the more correct medical term would be flayed, and one could think here of the new “artistic” bodies we find in the Mutter Museum. Baulos’ bodies are coupled with imagery of poisonous plants – we find amanita, for instance – which signifies the uneasy relationship between natural beauty and danger. We might term this doubling the sublime, for it stands as something that is both enticing and repulsive in precisely the same moment. What is most difficult about Baulos’ works, and in many ways what makes them the most personal, is their subtlety. Baulos couches the sorrow and sadness of loss in the cloak of artistic beauty. Or, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us, “The sublime moves, the beautiful charms.”
And then, there is yellow. From the shimmery gold surfaces of the works to the pale yellow flickering of Baulos’ tea lights, we see an unusual combination of sickly pallor and subtle beauty. It is as if he invites us to understand that yellow is both a color and a mood, a feeling, or, in his case, an aide memoire. In T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, it is the yellow of melancholy, of memory, and of loss that rubs its back along the windowpane, trying to get in. In Doug Baulos’ works it is a sense of loss we try without success to keep at bay.