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Ecstatic impressions

"Chris Baker and George Van Hook"


One function of art for the artist is fulfilling the urge to interpret and recreate what sings to us. Somewhere within the steady work of this practice, we better understand and feel more fully part of this strange and magnificent place, and share what we see and value with others. Creating is essentially an act of joy.

Oxford Gallery has a current showcase of two drastically different kinds of painters, each with incredible talent and the ability to captivate the viewer with the worlds they depict. Pairing George Van Hook and Chris Baker is fascinating in a number of ways, and the exhibit displays owner Jim Hall's sensitive attention to artists as much as it presents the painters' talent.

Van Hook's oil-on-linen paintings are rife with golden light and flux. His world is full of cozy, lush domestics and serene rural vistas. As an accomplished plein air painter, Van Hook's mode of working is a quick, wet-on-wet capture of the flowing world, with at times a heavy, greasy application of paint that maintains its dewy appearance long afterward.

In "Farm Lane in Springtime," Van Hook has depicted an achingly lovely day of the seasonal-threshold sort. A farmer passes between farm structures, among green grass dotted with flowers and bare trees scratching at a crispy blue sky, perhaps thinking of a piping hot coffee waiting for him indoors. These wistful paintings speak of all things good and comforting, and a sense of permanence: the eternal sweetness of the seasonal shifts, the everlasting ache and worthiness of working the earth.

"In the Hammock" is Van Hook's single figurative work in this show. Here, a woman in repose reads in the sunshine, cradled in a gesture of woven netting and framed by vibrating green light.

If Van Hook's paintings read like a beautiful tribute to home, Chris Baker is an artist who lives fully out in the world, who seems unspeakably entranced by each and every new place he visits. Baker likes to envelope his audience in atmospheres, and paints with the kind of sensitivity to detail and expert execution of minutiae that only arises from a place of new love. Each little realm is explored as a sacred space, whether it's the yawning and polished corridors of a French cathedral or the raw maw of Rochester's abandoned and scrawled-upon subway. He gives equal treatment to the grand places and the mundane spaces we drift through, and each scene has the haunt of humanity even when no humans are directly depicted.

In particular, I spent a long time studying all of the ever-surfacing signals in Baker's "Homage to Ptolemy," which is a graffiti-laden street scene packed with navigational clues. Dusty or paint-marked footprints wind a semi-circle here; arrows and cardinal directions are peppered throughout. "You Are Here," and here is relative.

Both Baker and Van Hook explore themes and specific vistas in a recurrent, fine-tuning, multi-dimensional way, both seemingly uninterested in pretending there's a finite way of seeing something. The same farm is explored from different angles in a few of Van Hook's works. The show includes several of his paintings of fly fishermen, wading alone or in a pair, their lines always arcing a great swoop in the sunshine, the tone of the day eternally optimistic. In "Among Friends," two waders are at work in water flatly snaking its path through the mighty presence of gigantic trees.

Baker revisits the street scene again and again. He explores a unique angle of Windsor Castle that lends the feeling of stumbling upon its (here, diminished) glory, and in "Jack's Street," he subtly maintains the ghost of horror in a modern, nighttime view of Whitechapel. Baker excels at undercurrent.

Other recurring themes in Baker's work include a couple of construction scenes, one little piece intimate and dominated by a dark and beastly machine, the other a larger, open, and bright piece titled "Earth Mover," which is as much a portrait of the lush variation of minerals in dirt as it as a picture of the yellow machine.

Baker works in gouache-on-paper and urges just an incredible range of use from the medium, depicting a world made molten in the setting sun, petals shivering in the moonlight, and marble hallways polished from so much footfall with the same striking realism. Some of my favorite works in this show are his crow-populated views of the silent stones on Salisbury Plain, each of which are varied enough to keep the subject interesting.

Van Hook breathes a gust of fresh air even into something as classic as the still life. These cheerful images of pottery, flowers, and toys are a bit more solid than his other works, likely having something to do with the fact that the objects he captured aren't tree boughs shifting in the wind and casting dancing shadows on a wooden bridge, or light playing upon water as it surges elsewhere.