Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery University of Western Australia, Perth 8 September to 20 October 2000
The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery has distinguished itself with a number of review exhibitions that focus on significant players in Western Australian art history, most of whom have had some association with the University of Western Australia. Allan Baker, the latest subject, is a characteristic choice. Well documented in the catalogue is his formative role in establishing an exhibition space and contributing to the art collection, as first appointed Curator of Pictures and Art Works at the University in the mid 1960s. Also noted is the impact on the state collection during his earlier role at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Additionally on a private basis he has supported the exposure of a number of key, colleague Western Australian artists.
Indeed, emphasis is given in the accompanying catalogue essay by exhibition Curator, Robert Cook, to biographical milestones and how Baker's generic approach to arts development in the State was underpinned by his world view and commitment to art practice and art education. As such the selection of works on exhibition is most parallel to the catalogue text by way of travelogue, with many subjects and paintings tracing Baker's European and Indian travels and time spent in the north of Western Australia. The exhibition pays homage to Baker's peripatetic leanings as much as to the artist's commitment to the figure. Cook makes a considered case for the pre-eminence of the figure in Baker's work unquestionably revealing its enduring source of satisfaction to the artist.
Reflecting objectively upon the exhibition the persistence of the figure seems at times dogged and at times inspired. In the context of evolvements in figurative and expressionist painting nationally and internationally in the 1980s, Baker's approach seems comparatively academic and measured. At other times this artistic conservatism and tenacity is elevated by his capacity to convey vivid projections of the human condition, which is what Cook argues guides and drives Baker. Interestingly, among the most experimentally adventurous works on display is a singular bold work that abandons the figure, Abstract Expressionist Habitat, 1982. It corresponds with landscape methodologies embraced by the likes of Mac Betts and Robert Juniper. While it is an accomplished work, its inclusion serves to confirm that Baker's comfort zone was the figure. Generally, where landscape is painted it is as a background or to provide a setting in which to foreground a group of figures in a genre or history painting style and it is handled in a representational vein. Resonances of William Dobell, Harald Vike and Russell Drysdale, and even the lineage of Gustave Courbet's social realism seem more pervasive, as exemplified by At the Picnic Races 1991 and Landrover, 1965.
The exhibition is at its most enlightening in demonstrating the artist's predilection for returning to subjects and this is enhanced by a layout that places adjacently a number of related works, even though their execution may be separated by fifteen or twenty years. The Miners, Wittenoom, 1965 next to Wittenoom Miners, 1992 shows how subtle the distinctions are in Baker's oeuvre across the thirty or so years of practice. This is also portrayed by numerous studies of indigenous individuals such as The Little Girl in Broome, 1965 and Girl in Landscape, 1981. There are variances in light and spareness, but the frontality and dignity of his subjects is mostly preserved. Also revealing are the ebbs and flows of artistic productivity. Whether accurately reflected by the selection or not, the exhibition seems dominated by works of certain years suggesting these were the most prolific or artistically confident times. This brings forth one curatorial quibble. The catalogue, does not include a complete checklist of works which frustrates such charting and further research. It may have been provided separately but it would be better placed published in the body of the catalogue and would consolidate the curatorial research that has produced the survey.
Within this unearthing of Baker's career, the most consummately haunting and convincing figurative studies seem those that are compositionally spare and, somewhat ironically, where the figure is at the deepest within the picture plane, almost receding into it or alternatively projected almost beyond the picture plane. Works such as The Suppliant, and The Fishwife, both of 1965 and London Immigrant, 1967 are particularly evocative. One of the most diminutive works on display, Greek Woman, 1980 proves to be one of the most evocative. A small dark figure emerges from an ambiguous red and taupe background, the whole shrouded in mystery, magnetic in drawing the viewer to the figure.
Baker's choice of subjects from stockmen, miners, beggars, and children to peasants accumulatively declares the socialist and humanist parameters of his observation and determines a viewer response to his career that transcends its traditionalist appearance.