A woodworker’s art

for the exhibition at TPW (Toronto), 2001

Curtis joseph Collins, art consultant

Listed first under the heading of Professional Activities on Nicolas Baier’s résumé is menuiserie (woodworker), which may be the most fitting nomenclature for this young man who eschews artistic and intellectual pretensions. Baier makes his living designing and building custom furniture, which provides him with the financial means to pursue more impractical activities such as producing art. In 1993, after receiving visual-arts grants from both the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ministère des affaires culturelles du Québec, the woodworker-cum-artist abandoned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Concordia University. Higher education had become an impediment to Baier’s ever-growing realm of creative endeavours. Over the next few years the Montreal-based menuisier co-founded Atelier Clark, an artist-run multi-studio space in the city’s core, and began exhibiting his paintings.

In spite of a pronounced disdain for academic and aesthetic “bullshit,” Baier has managed to position himself at the forefront of Quebec’s art scene via recent solo shows at Galerie René Blouin, Optica, and the Centre des arts actuels SKOL. Furthermore, his inclusion in last year’s Biennale de Montréal found this circumspect artist’s work alongside that of such Canadian art celebrities as Michael Snow, AA Bronson, and Geneviève Cadieux. What has caught the attention of curators, dealers, critics, and the art-going public is Baier’s move from painting to computer-altered photography during the late 1990s. However, he emphatically states, “I am not a photographer, and I don’t know much about computers.” For Baier the camera is a simple tool used for collecting everyday visual material, and the computer is just another elementary device he employs to manipulate such imagery. Perhaps it is the quality of his joinery that is the most alluring feature in these pieces on display at the Toronto Photographers Workshop, the element that ultimately allows his works to transcend their modest thematic origins.

Liquidation Niko et ses amis (Établi) is part of a 1999 series in which Baier symbolically cleared out the contents of his own studio and apartment as well as those of his friends. These large-format digital prints on high-gloss paper feature subjects ranging from three stacks of National Geographic magazines to the lower third of an interior white wall. Not exactly heady stuff, and yet their exacting geometric constructions are visually captivating. Établi reveals both the formal and temporal concerns central to this 34-year-old artist’s widening oeuvre. The 2-x-2-metre image is a perfectly centred shot of Baier’s workbench and tool board. However, the clamps, wood chisels, files, cases, buckets, scrapers, power tools, and Japanese hand saws in this woodworker’s highly ordered space are set askew. Small cut-away squares of things stored beneath the bench have been electronically pasted overtop of the white pegboard; square sections of hanging items also reappear out of place. The result is an expanded depth of field, where details bounce on a well-orchestrated colour and textural grid that represents an oblique self-portrait of its maker.

In 05-06-07 Baier’s personalized play on time and space is moved into a more intimate setting; this piece depicts the bedroom of his friend and fellow Gallery Clark member Emmanuel Galland. This 2000 work’s title suggests the passing of three days; however, the Montreal woodworker has here generated a “lie” that mocks the creative licence afforded to artists. The bedroom was actually photographed over the course of only a single day, and as in ÉtabliBaier positions his 4 x 5 camera at a centred, frontal access point. Viewers thus become stationary witnesses to multiple stages of unseen human activities whose pictorial residue is scanned into a computer and then deftly compressed using a common graphics program. For example, the bed is made to appear simultaneously covered with blankets and stripped down to the mattress, and also becomes the place where pizza and cigarettes were consumed at some point. The overlapping scenes in 05-06-07 also double as studies in colour as a function of time, most evident via the bedroom wall’s checkerboard effect. Squared-off sections of various white surface tones chart the room’s changing light conditions, not to mention the wall’s textural imperfections. Hence, this carefully crafted aesthetic observation is seamlessly joined to a portrait of everyday existence among Montreal’s young cultural professionals.

In situating Baier’s work in relation to Canadian art of the past fifty years, one might be tempted to wedge his imagery somewhere between Mary Pratt’s unoccupied domestic scenes and Guido Molinari’s non-objective compositions. Like Pratt, he relies on the camera as a preparatory recording device; at the same time, his computer-generated grids recall the plastic subtlety of Molinari’s colour bars. Such parallels to painters rather than photographers are justified, because Baier builds pictures as opposed to capturing them. Charte represents the woodworker-artist’s most convincing creation of the year 2000. It features personal spaces re-orchestrated according to textural and tonal values. The 36 identically sized squares that make up this 244-x-244-centimetre digital print, mounted on galvanized steel, depict various sections of white wall photographed in Baier’s apartment and studio. Incongruent details such as the door frame’s disparate mouldings, push-button as well as lever switches for a single incandescent light-bulb, and an electric and steam baseboard heating system all convey the sense of a fragmented reality to viewers. Meanwhile, writing on a central square of wall reads “J-s doit une bière Seb aussi” (J-s owes one beer Seb too), followed by a later inscription reading “payé” (paid). The suggestion here is that particular people have repeatedly passed through the artist’s composite room, which also functions as a study in tonality. Beginning with a bright white square in the upper left corner and ending with a dark brown square in the lower right corner, Baier literally charts what he calls “the impossibility of a real white.” Cracks, nails, holes, and scuffs on each wall section enhance the balance in his visual structure, where art and life are comfortably dovetailed.

Baier’s pixel-like imagery may seem derivative of digitally obscured faces or transmission breakdowns on television, and similar to this seductive medium’s popular monotony, his art could have easily fallen into a formulaic stasis. However, the artist’s most recent works have departed from the visual effects described earlier, while still maintaining a focus on bonding personal and aesthetic concerns. In Ocre Baier returns to his apartment as a site of introspection. A photographed section of ceiling, flanked by a doorway and a natural gas heater, is turned upside down in order to gently alter the viewer’s perspective on such an innocuous setting. Other less noticeable changes, performed on the computer, include a slight bending of the lines where the white ceiling meets yellow wall on the left and right sides of the picture. Hence, at first glance, Ocre’s ceiling actually reads as an uneven floor, and the heater’s irregular ducting serves to compliment this quirky space. Baier’s naming of this piece suggests yet another objective for his visual play on reality; the title refers to a tonal variation in the two yellow walls. Light and colour are key factors in the artist’s selection of mundane subjects to comment on the nature of his being. Perhaps the white blur passing through the simultaneously opened and closed door in this 2001 piece can be said to symbolize the fleeting quality of human existence : we rarely outlive the edifices that surround us.

Currently, Nicolas Baier is in the midst of creating new photographic-computer images for his show at the Toronto Photographers Workshop. He treats each opportunity for public exposure like a contract job. This time the woodworker has gathered images from a bathroom, which should prove to push his joinery skills in an entirely new direction.

*All quotes are derived from an informal discussion between the author and Nicolas Baier on October 2, 2001 in Montreal.