Mirrors and Reflections: In the Mind of Nicolas Baier

for the exhibition Paréidolias, 2008/2010

Gilles Godmer, art historian

Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.

Michel de Montaigne (III, 13)

Out of this confused mass of objects the mind will be furnished with abundance of designs and subjects, perfectly new.

Leonardo da Vinci

From one exhibition to the next, Nicolas Baier reveals himself to be a formidable predator of images, constantly pushing back the boundaries of his art. While Baier’s strategies over the past few years have remained practically the same—selecting an image from reality and producing the work out of fragments and various forms of digital manipulation—the task of locating these images seems to have taken on increasingly greater importance. Baier thus continues to provide us with generous personal “visions” which, not so long ago, bore titles such as Comptoir (“Counter”, 2002) and Garage (2003). Today, his work is called Le chemin des nuages (“The Way of the Clouds”, 2008) and Vieux continents (“Old Continents”, 2008). In these examples in particular, Baier is quite open and willing, through the titles he gives them, to share his sagacity and private observations. For, without their titles, these works would remain enigmatic and their everyday sources, and with them his shrewd eye for transforming certain seemingly unremarkable details of reality into art, would certainly slip by us. At other times, Baier prefers to leave this fully to the viewer’s imagination and remains circumspect about the origin of the work, whose title adds to its mystery and poetry (Planète [2002]; Annonciation [2006]).

Shadow Plays

Nicolas Baier appears to want to go further in this direction in the body of work he calls Pareidolias 1. Baier has recently become interested in tarnished mirrors and uses them here to explore their expressive potential. In the works he calls Vanités, Baier has assembled dozens of old mirrors of varying shapes and sizes, which he has digitised and assembled in patchwork fashion into a monumental surface which respects for the most part the original format of each of its components. These imperfect objects marked by time yield up to the scanner only their specificities—each mirror’s variety of imperfections, grime and coverings of every description—while the reflective parts are always left to become “sombre expanses, black and profound” 2. Each of them displays a completely irregular and resolutely abstract surface, mottled with grey, black and beige tints. In Vanités II, the horizontal diamond-shaped motif the work adopts mimics in addition the viewer’s field of vision. Through their treatment, these imposing works become an immense screen on which each of us, depending on our baggage, inclinations and obsessions, undertakes an almost never-ending reading of the thousand and one figures, objects and landscapes to be found in this vast shadow play 3.

This time, taking another step in the creative process in which he has embarked, Baier has chosen to remain circumspect. Rather than provide the visitor with his personal projections onto aspects of our surrounding reality—without renouncing the style that in large part characterises his art—he chooses, in these Vanités, to create conditions conducive to enabling each of us to read, if not to project, our own images. In doing so, we are skilfully invited to take up momentarily Baier’s own path in these new works and to reproduce to varying degrees his creative process. Like Baier’s treatment of the environment at the source of his art, we grab onto one or another part of the work, removing it from the whole and choosing here and there, in the seeming chaos of the photographic surface, a landscape, the outline of a city, or an anthropoid-like figure.

Reading and Projecting

Nicolas Baier would say that most people, in this exercise, see landscapes in particular in the immense screen that the work becomes. In circumstances such as these, each of us, unfortunately, is confronted with our own limitations. And not all of us can be artists, even if we would like to be. Here Baier’s predatory gaze, adopted by viewers as their own, mimicking its essential aspects, quickly dies on the comforting images of the familiar. For, despite the different context, one person’s imagination has little in common with another’s. And, confronted in this way with chaos, people usually try to impose a kind of order based on their experience. Unlike Baier, viewers thus want to silence the voices of discomfort, if not those of the malaise we sense when deciphering the formless images with which we are already familiar and which we find reassuring. To dissipate the vertigo we experience, we project what we know of the world. Perhaps, once our anxiety has passed, we can return to the surface and appreciate its effects, textures and colours.

Stimulated by a comment by Agnès Martin about her paintings 4, Baier concludes that “art almost always acts like a mirror”. With Vanités, he demonstrates this eloquently and, in a sense, literally, sharing the interest of someone like Leonardo da Vinci in chance splotches, shapes and textures and for abstraction in general 5. In this way, Baier’s photographs continue his work of transgression, constantly transforming a little bit more the site of reading that it is into a site of projection to which it thereafter accedes in a more convincing manner. From this perspective the Vanités, having become true “paranoiac screens” 6, are connected with intellectual activity, or even a game, which is concerned above all with the production of meaning. And whenever intellectual activity is mentioned with respect to a work of art, Leonardo’s formula pittura è cosa mentale is inevitably brought to mind. And this is all that is needed for Nicolas Baier’s photographs to reveal, once again, their special connection to painting. For, while this connection has been established more than once in various articles over the past few years, the presence of vanitas in Baier’s oeuvre today only confirms, if any confirmation were needed, how apt and relevant this observation is 7.

The Landscape

Having ventured with these works into the outer edges of his art, in which photography leaves the viewer a wide margin to manoeuvre, Nicolas Baier set off in the opposite direction with his following works, the Noirs (“Blacks”), at least from the point of view of the numerous stages of their creation and the end result. At the source of these new works is the presence, if not the omnipresence in a broad sense, of landscape in the Vanités. As Baier remarks, the Noirs are the mirror effect engendered by the Vanités. This candid avowal provides unique insight into the mysteries of creation in Baier’s work and demonstrates clearly how one series of work is generated by the previous one.

Where the Vanités had been relatively simple to produce, in that they required little or no manipulation of the image following the digitisation of the mirrors (apart from their assemblage of course), the opposite is true of the following series. Situated at the heart of these new photographs, the landscape, or what passes as such, has been submitted to many subtle modifications in the course of preparing the final work. First of all, there is the colour image at the source of each of them in which time and space play a considerable role. Once this stage was complete the transformation of the photographic image began. Here, colour quickly gives way to black and white, with much greater contrast. Although glossy at the start, the photograph soon becomes matte in appearance, giving it visible tactile qualities. This tactile element, curiously enough, leads the landscape gradually to dissolve in the work’s newly gained material feel. What is seductive about the works is the mottled effect this produces, drawing the eye to the surface. A watercolour effect tends to take over, at the expense of the image itself. And so we have come full circle: the landscape, after its unexpected appearance in the murky screens of the Vanités, has become the subject of the work and gradually becomes diluted in the materiality of the surface of the Noirs.

The landscape, although in a somewhat different manner, is also at issue more than ever in Baier’s other recent works, entitled Paésines, or even in those which, despite their abstraction, contain a clear vanishing point and are called Le chemin des nuages and La transformation des nuages (“The Transformation of the Clouds”). Returning here to a process that has demonstrated its worth, these works originate with the same trained and always watchful eye. Here, once again, each photograph is the expression of a pure act of artistic predation in which Baier had to do little more than pluck the object with his attentive gaze.

In the case of those curios the paesines, their connection to the landscape, which goes back to the discovery and polishing of stone, is not unrelated to some of the observations by Leonardo quoted above. These calcareous rocks, full of fissures and mineral salts and which come from Italy and more precisely Tuscany, suddenly take on a very peculiar quality when they are polished. Historically, some have been quick to associate them with vaguely marine landscapes in which the silhouette of a city or the irregular outlines of a mountain range can sometimes be seen.  

The Mirror Effect

Similarly, in the two works dealing with clouds—functioning as something like mirror illustrations of the atmospheric phenomenon that precedes their formation—Baier’s artist’s eye saw from the beginning in the “found objects” 8 in question the sort of schematic scientific drawings that used to be found in children’s school books to illustrate the water cycle between the sky and the earth, crudely divided here by an indefinite vanishing point. And he would be more than a little proud to note in passing that what he managed to capture in these works was precisely the phenomenon itself of water and its cycle, which he saw in them from the start and which is what truly took place on these large sheets of paper (condensation, evaporation, etc.). The mirror effect at work here, in a sense, should ideally also be present in the Paésines or in the photograph entitled Météorite, an extreme blow-up of the composition of one of these rocks that occasionally strike the Earth. What would please the imagination’s fancy, Baier remarks 9—and we are not that far removed from such a thing, after all—is for these works, if only approximately, to reveal a fairly faithful reflection of their origins: a vaguely Tuscan landscape seen in a paesine, and another, more “lunar” landscape hiding in the outline of one of these rocks from a distant asteroid.

The above thoughts are a good indication of the artistic range of Nicolas Baier’s most recent photographic work. Taken together, this recent work continues to balance more than ever what we might call observation and performance, the surgically targeted use of reality and strategically transformed digital manipulations, photography and painting, and recent work and the previous work from which it appears to derive, on the borderline between the object and its reflection. Just the same, this new work pushes back the artistic boundaries within which Baier has worked until now. 

Overall, this body of work shows, to varying degrees, the importance that the concept of the mirror has taken on in the process leading to their creation. It is of little importance whether this was done consciously or not. Clearly, this goes beyond the dubious themes that some have seen in previous exhibitions of Baier’s work (the studio, domestic space, etc.). In addition, some of these works now reveal, in a deliberate manner for the first time, what we might call projected private space: that of the artist, of course, which has been present in his work since the beginning; but also, this time, of the viewer. Through this operation, an artistic experience is thereby shared and an unexpected relationship also created between the artist and the viewer. More than ever before in Baier’s photographs, in this play of substituting what is for what is seen, the realm of the imagination reigns.

1- These are resolutely abstract images into which the viewer can read landscapes, a human skull, etc. and which are known in English as pareidolia.

2- These are Nicolas Baier’s words.

3- On the question of projection, see E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study of the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (London: Phaidon, 1959), 165-76.

4- In a recent text, Baier wrote: “Agnès Martin has said of her paintings that they are not about what she has seen, but about what each of us has always known”.

5- In the following passage, Leonardo describes the phenomenon of appearances and visual illusions, or what is also known as pareidolia: “And, this is, when you look at any walls spotted with stains, or with stones of various patterns, if you have to invent some setting, you may be able to see therein a resemblance to various landscapes, graced with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or, again, you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes; and an endless variety of things, which you can distil into well-drawn forms”. Jean Paul Richter, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. Compiled and Edited from the Original Manuscripts, vol. 1 (London: Phaidon, 1970 [1883]), 311.

6- A concept developed by the Surrealists (Dalí) in a variation on Leonardo’s observations.

7- The mirror is an important object in the history of painting, and vanitas paintings became a full-fledged pictorial genre in the seventeenth century. It is also worth pointing out that the presence of the blind mirror in some vanitas paintings, particularly that of Lubin Baugin entitled Nature mort à l’échiquier (“Still Life with Chess-Board”, 1630), symbolised death.  

8- These objects are large-format photographs on paper that has reacted to humidity and which covered the windows of an abandoned shop.

9- This comment was made during a discussion with the present author.