Charming Baker is a phenomenon. Right now, a much bigger phenomenon in the British art scene than the much touted, but now rather tired and fading YBAs. The YBAs, after suitably Bohemian, in-your-face beginnings, are now the official face of British art. You will find most of them (though not quite all) represented in the closing galleries of the new hang at Tate Britain, which aims to tell the complete story of British art, from the Tudors until now. Search as you may, you won’t find even one of Charming Baker’s works in the display. There are no examples recorded on Tate’s notoriously tangled and difficult to use website. The gallery owns lots of works by Hirst and Emin. More than a few by Sarah Lucas. Twenty-four
paintings by Gary Hume, who is currently the subject of a much-hyped retrospective that runs at Tate Britain until 1st September. But no example by Charming Baker.
This is odd because Baker has recently become one of the hottest tickets in the British and American art markets. At the new Art13 Fair, held at Olympia at the beginning of March, Jealous Gallery, who publish Baker’s prints, sold £150,000 worth of them in the course of the preview evening. On 11th March, he opened a huge solo show at a converted aircraft hangar called Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Milk Studios are not simply a gallery. On their web site they describe themselves as standing ‘at the crossroads of the fashion, music, photography and film worlds… a hub for nurturing creativity and supporting partnerships with some of the industry’s most visionary talent and innovative brands.’ The exhibition spanned only three days, and Jealous Studios produced special editions of prints, there on the spot, during that period.
Charming Baker, The Only Thing I’m Sure of Is That I’m Sure of Nothing,
Oil and Acrylic on Routed Panel, 198cm x 152cm
© Charming Baker
Charming Baker, I Used to Think I had a Few Answers,
Oil and acrylic on linen, 115 x 95cm
© Charming Baker
Baker’s rise in the art world has been both slow and meteoric. He was born in 1964, and thus belongs to exactly the same generation as the leading YBAs. His father was a Marine Commando, and the family spent a lot oftime travelling round with him. In an interview included in the catalogue for his L.A. show he says: ‘We moved to a new camp every two years where we’d get a house that was pretty similar to the last one, but slightly different …We lived in Singapore and Malaysia, so I got two years of palm trees and bright sunshine and open storm drains. And I got two years of Germany and two years of Wales …’ When he was twelve, the family finally settled in Ripon. He stayed there until he was twenty-one, leaving school at sixteen and working at various manual jobs (where he acquired his nickname ‘Charming’), before returning to college and enrolling at Central Saint Martin’s, where he later worked as a lecturer. His main career, however, after graduating as an art school, was as a commercial artist.
Everything began to change when his work attracted the attention of an American company whose business was not art, but music management. Since then Baker has had a series of shows, often in ad hoc spaces that don’t have a regular art programme. I first saw Charming’s work in 2011, at the Mercer Street Studios in Covent Garden, much better known for fashion events than they are for art. Yes, I was immediately hooked. I thought his work was seductive, and I was extremely flattered (a declaration of interest and involvement here) when I was later asked to provide a catalogue essay for the show that has just taken place in Los Angeles.
At the same time, however, I saw Charming Baker’s career trajectory, and his network of alliances, as a sign of the times. In many respects he can be thought of as ‘old fashioned’, in revolt against fashionable conceptualism, very much hands on, with a wide range of skills developed during his time as a commercial artist. The same thing, by the way, can be said about Andy Warhol, who was a popular and much respected commercial illustrator, before he made a career as a fine artist. One difference, perhaps, is simply that Charming has a much wider range. As a commercial illustrator, Andy Warhol specialised rather narrowly in drawing shoes.
Commercial artists require these skills to satisfy the multiple demands of their clients. The successful ones, I think, also need an ability to ‘think outside the box’. No technique is outlawed. If it works, it works. Yet a third characteristic is economy of effort. The successful commercial artist or illustrator looks for two things. One is the simplest and clearest way of delivering the required message – and that message may, paradoxically, be an emotion, a surrounding climate of feeling, rather than something entirely specific, with a precise equivalent in words. At the same time, however, professional illustrators look for short cuts – for perhaps unorthodox but timesaving ways of creating a particular effect. Nobody is going to fuss if they do the job. Charming Baker often startles me, pleasurably it must be said, by the concise economy of his visual solutions.
Allied to this comes a certain open-endedness. If you are reaching out to the spectator, which is what commercial art by definition has to do, you need to leave room. He or she has to have space to complete the thought or image you are presenting. In a way, this concept comes from photography where, ever since the days of the early 20th century Photo Secession, the part has often been allowed to stand for the whole. Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz are exemplars of this. Pop Art, with rare exceptions, approached commercial art from outside. What it appropriates, it appropriates complete. Charming Baker does not do this – like a large number of contemporary figurative artists he appropriates images, but essentially he tends to begin by looking for a way to express a particular thought or emotion, which slowly evolves from within himself. Appropriation is part of a process, but never a straightjacket.
To this must be added the originality of his career pattern, helped by the allies he has found within the music business. This pattern is obviously linked to the kind of event-making that has become a commonplace in successful music promotion. The strategy is often to try to make a big impact, but not to hang around too long once you have made it. Charming Baker’s advisers have obviously noted the wasteful nature of many exhibitions held in established commercial galleries – a big opening party, perhaps, but very little footfall during the two, three or four weeks that follow. Major official galleries manage to create a situation where there is a steady flow of visitors during the period that they exhibition is on show. In fact, with some major successes, such as the Leonardo show at the National Gallery in London not so long ago, demand tends to outstrip supply. Visiting that show was a battle rather than a pleasure. Commercial galleries rarely, if ever, achieve the same kind of (uncomfortable and frustrating) success.
Oil and acrylic on linen,122 x 142cm
© Charming Baker
© Charming Baker
Charming Baker, One Day Everything We’ve Made Will No Longer Exist, 2009, Oil on linen, 95 x 110cm
© Charming Baker
Baker’s team has also been notably successful in getting the word out where it counts – to potential buyers. When I visited the Mercer Street show in 2011, perhaps a week after its opening, it was more or less sold out. Earlier this year, I went to the artist’s studio in Deptford, to see the new work and discuss the catalogue essay for the upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles. Most of the paintings for this were already stacked up in the room, ready to be shipped. Idly – perhaps rather discourteously – I started to ask about prices. Everything I enquired about was already sold, at prices more than double than those that had prevailed only two years previously. A Charming Baker painting won’t cost you – yet – what you might be asked to pay for a Damien Hirst spot painting. It is, nevertheless, possible to suspect that, if you want one, you now have to stand in line. The Tate, it seems, didn’t book its place.
This is not an entirely new situation in the art world. Both Ambroise Vollard (dealer to both Cézanne and Picasso) and Leo Castelli (Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein) played the same kind of cat-and-mouse game with their clients.
The element of novelty in Baker’s own artistic practice, as opposed to the means used to bring his art to the public, is his close relationship to the Web, not just as a social medium but as a source of imagery, imagery that can be altered and perhaps in some way even traduced. In the long interview with the filmmaker Ray Hanrahan that forms a substantial part of the Los Angeles catalogue, Baker says ‘If I find an image on the internet and it’s somebody’s crappy website and it’s a poor image, I like the idea that I can change it.’ He instances a painting that uses ‘an image of a cat that was roadkill. I think it was just a kid, a teenager maybe, who took the photograph on the way to school and put it online. But somebody cared about that cat … So I thought I’d bring [it] back to life … I turned the canvas around so that the cat looked as if was stood up, knowing all the time it was a picture of a dead cat. I’d never have painted that cat if I hadn’t been trawling the Internet.’
There often seems to be a moral element in these transformations. Describing a painting called Just Because Everything is Different Doesn’t Mean Anything Has Changed, Baker says that its source was a Nazi propaganda photograph taken in Paris during the German Occupation – ‘their propaganda machine was trying to say that everything in Paris is fine, everyone’s having a nice life. But in amongst pictures of people doing ordinary things were soldiers, and then there was a woman wearing a Star of David.’
How did Baker produce a paradigm shift when transcribing this image? First by leaving everything looking slightly unfinished, as if the painting was still evolving in front of our eyes. Secondly, in this particular case, by giving the figures somewhat enlarged heads. ‘I like the idea of how Disneyland gave everyone a big head in order to make them look cute … The Nazis were trying to make this little advert for how nice things were, so I made it into Disneyland – I just gave everyone a big head to show that it was kind of a lie.’
What I really like about these paintings – and I haven’t discussed the fact that Charming Baker is also a sculptor (let’s leave that for another time) – is not only that they are technically beautiful, but in a slightly downbeat, off-hand, sleazy way, emphasised by the fact that the artist often roughs them up: slashes them, even fires a gun at them. It’s also that they have, for me at least, complex emotional resonances that a great deal of currently fashionable contemporary art doesn’t seem to possess. Their source materials – what the images are and where they come from – grounds them firmly in the most novel areas of our culture. The Internet is changing our world and all of us are running to catch up. At the same time they have an individuality of handling that assures us that they are the product of a single individual. There’s no backup team here, busily manufacturing spot paintings or their equivalents. They also have something more, a kind of romantic melancholy that is very British. And sometimes the melancholy turns out to have sharp claws. The pictures make you sit up and examine your conscience.