To the Interior: The Transformative Art of Doug Baulos
I first encountered the work of Doug Baulos many years ago in the Birmingham, Alabama, home of an artist couple. Though this sculptural installation of square oxidized tiles of metal arranged in the vestiges of a grid was a very early piece from his career, it displayed the signature tension between organic, natural processes and man-made functional objects that Doug would continue to explore. The reference to specific historical eras and sites through the selection of found objects coupled with the representation of the passage of time through the natural changes to those ready-mades are persistent qualities within Baulos’s artistic practice. The deadest of objects are reclaimed and re-animated in Baulos’s world.
Baulos is a difficult artist to categorize, which may be by design, as Baulos described himself to me in a recent studio visit as someone who “does not like to label things.” Working in both two- and three-dimensions and comfortably moving between drawing, painting, new media, sculpture, found object, and traditional craft techniques, he is a quintessential mixed media artist. However, Baulos is also a multi-vocal artist, performing within an American vernacular, as well as within Mexican and Cambodian folkloric and historical vocabularies. His body of work has clear, identifiable style, and, at the same time, Doug is a model collaborator who moves in and out of artistic collectives.
Part of Baulos’s breadth is due to his early experience on his grandparents’ Illinois farm and his connection to agricultural traditions that are natural, cyclical, and simultaneously technological. Denizens of the contemporary art world tend to define rural experience as a historical phenomenon instead of a present-day practice that takes place out of sight from urban centers. For Baulos, the direct experience of Midwestern farming communities—a rarity among contemporary artists of his generation—undergirds a great deal of his iconography and choice of materials. Baulos chooses objects that are humble and discarded, arranging them in sophisticated and tenuously balanced compositions. The references do not conjure a sentimentalized Norman Rockwell farm family so much as they do a farm accident, with all the gruesome and homely qualities of the home funeral, “of a body laid out on the dining room table,” as Baulos described. There is an intimacy with the subject becoming object, with the reverence for the passed life and the confrontation of the doggedly present body.
Baulos cites this his rural sensibility with his long-term collaborative work in both Mexico and Cambodia where he finds similar conceptions of time: cycles of decomposition and loss, of rebirth and embodied memory. Baulos’s connection to both Mexico and Cambodia are the result of kismet, an intuitive response to chance visits. Mexico’s Dios de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and its ritualistic celebration of one’s ancestors is a potent and fruitful cross-cultural current that finds a home in Baulos’s body of work. Baulos has returned to Mexico over 30 times since his first visit at age 19, during which he fell in love with the culture and the texture of the place. In “Oracion, Huastec Child in Mask (2008),” Baulos employs a photography-base drawing technique on tea-stained paper. The image is a trace of an encounter, re-marking and re-visiting by
hand a mechanically-captured moment. The child is further distanced from the viewer by the mask, highlighting our reliance on Baulos’s subjective memory and re-telling of his experience. Baulos is not presuming to give us Mexico through his work, but renders how a place encodes itself within us and an event evolves as part of our own personal system of symbols.
Memory and memorial are brought to the fore in Baulos’s Cambodian pieces, a place he visited on the invitation of an artist friend, Chris Lawson. Baulos, Lawson, and artist Merrilee Challis traveled twice to Cambodia to work collaboratively at the Java Arts Center in conjunction with Cambodian artists. Interested in the Buddhist aphorism “with a body comes suffering,” Baulos developed a series of works that merged his own explorations with mortality with the stories he was hearing about the Killing Fields. While later serving as the artist-in-residence at Wat Lanka in 2006, Baulos was given small photos by their family members of the people who had been killed. Baulos described the photos as precious objects that were smuggled out by those fleeing the Khmer Rouge, along with other small objects which were sewn into the lining of their clothes. The Lanka collages function as shrines to the lost, commemorating their lives and, at the same time the story of the reclamation of their memory. Baulos sews the photos into the composition, a material reminder of how the memories and images were preserved.
Baulos cites the Surrealist collagists as clear influences in his artistic practice, but he finds a deeper affinity with literature. The development of an extended personal symbology that at times may be difficult to penetrate, Baulos attributes to the poetry of John Ashbery, particularly his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Likewise his meditation on the body, both literal and mythical bodies, is inspired by Carson McCullers’s novel, The Ballad of the Sad Café. The small town Georgia story centers on Cousin Lymon, a hunchback, who is at the center of a series of unrequited romantic relationships, but at the same time possesses “an instinct which is usually only found in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world.” Baulos calls Lymon his alter ego and his figure appears in the AUM Gallery in the form of a suitcase, the symbol of both the traveler and the collector.
Baulos’s own traveling extends beyond Mexico and Cambodia to go back in time. Drawing from memories of his walks in the woods in Exeter, Illinois, at his grandparents’ house as a child, and with the aid of Google Maps, Baulos revisits those paths and replicates those lines in “Exeter Walking Meditation.” His collection of found objects conjure images of dusty basements and rural attics packed with the items that are no longer necessary, but his careful arrangement suggests something precious: the token or fetish that can make the past present.
The “vital contact” is central in Baulos’s work, as he connects histories with bodies, the abstraction of narrative with the physicality of things. The nature of these connections is evident in his spider web imagery and his portraits that include x-rays and anatomical organ drawings. Perhaps even more potent is his recent work with book arts in which he pushes the idea of simultaneous linking the outside surface with inner experience. The book itself is humble object that opens into vast, imaginative space for the reader. Baulos’s transformative book sculptures “Effigy Fleurs du Mal Albatross (Baudelaire)” and “Effigy Albatross (Coleridge)” explode the text into an embodied narrative, a sculpture of our inner life.