Seeing Green with Megan Baker
Between the house and the man, stood a woman. Dark brown hair coiled high, stray strands spilling loose and fine along a bare neck. Rough wool shawl roughly draped across slim shoulders. Cold hands, chipped skin, a face as fresh as yesterday. The woman stood in a dress, soaked in frost, baked by sun, flecked with flakes of wheat and washed with river water. She stood, between two destinies of impermanence: between the promise of stillness and the certainty of unceasing life; between padded spaces and harsh, unrelenting light. She stood, husks of corn in her hands, geese and pheasants calling, high grass burying feet and flight. She stood, a man to the left of her, a solemn house to the right. She stood, in the infinite wilderness between the two, treasuring the half-light of this half-time. She stood, a destiny unto herself.
In the work of Megan Baker, female figures are situated in the half-light and half-time of their lives. Pausing between roles of mother, daughter, sister, friend or lover, Baker’s forms exist alone, unadorned, in an exuberant, rolling landscape. They stand alone in a wild wilderness of transporting greens, refracting browns and transpiring blues. This is her latest show, Where the Ground Meets the Sky, at the equally tranquil and transportive Gillian Jason Gallery. A young but impressively talented and perceptive artist, Baker has created a series of paintings that echo the stirring rhythms, pulsing paces and continual movements of nature. Using generous and generative sweeps of paint, she upends the calm historically associated with the pastoral by allowing the tumult of nature to take over. Her compositions subsequently brim with the vibrant acuity of the natural; they overflow with its inherent music and motion. That is not to say the rapid and rippling ecologies or continuous patternment of paintwork are not thoughtfully placed or thought through. Rather, a natural intuition, born of the painter and painted environment, roves through the gestural brushwork; a palpable charge circulates and freely flows through every abstractly figured scene.
Her female forms are not, therefore, static in this roving wildlife. They are not placidly placed or emplaced in the ceaseless stream of leaf-strewn woodland, scrubland or wetland. They are part of the cycle of the natural world; they dissolve and resolve as the elemental winds of change blow through their
painted selves. Arrested in an intermissive state, poised between degeneration and regeneration; hovering in a “between” space, where the world opens up in a fissure of bare earth or the break of a bruised reed, these women appear, incomplete, inchoate, neither here nor there, arrived or departed, but appearing and disappearing as the changeable breeze does amongst trees. Subjective premonitions, tremulous in the transitionary stage and status of life, the female figures emerge only to become submerged in Baker’s oracular, ocular field of green and greening vision. Seeing these forms converge into and onto the painted plane, I am struck by the natural forces that make them; raw materials that gather only to fall apart in this fading, flickering life. Baker’s simultaneously restless and restive impastoed brushstrokes assemble, disassemble and reassemble these female forms. Fragment by flailing, flourishing and foundering fragment, the figures assume something approximate to selfhood, only to lose their selves to a greater surrounding selfless site.
Coalescence of self and space is a prevailing theme in these works, as evinced in the exhibition title. The ground meets the sky, the body meets the earth, the leaf falls, slips, drifts down from the tree to meet the unsettled soil. The ready ripeness of nature’s time is all. Planes of existence and experience collide, blurring distinction, distinguished by the unblemished blur of breezy greens, beckoning blues, the bracken browns, beiges and reds that belong to us (ash and dust and earth that we are). Baker’s work harmonises life’s exquisite bursts of colour with death’s sombre, silent hues. Beauty is felt, grasped, held like an intake of breath then reluctantly relinquished, exhaled out onto the slipstream of existence. Evanescence is the eternal rule. Lapsed and lapsing, nature returns to its most variegated and voluptuous visions to celebrate what has been, what is, what will be in one explosion of being. She, Baker’s figure, flashes forth in a volatile instant, revisiting what has been, what is, what will be. She coalesces with change; she courts and contains the crepuscular moment. Greens fade to browns to greens again, and the woman in the half-state of it all fades green too.
Abby stands in the wheat fields, feet river-wet, water-washed, watered-down to the ground. She stands between a motioning man and an immobile house. She stands rootless and rooted, reckoning with the choices handed to her, like fine wheat grains collected; corn stalks plucked in the half-light of day. Abby stands, between a man turned away from her and a house shrouded in dark; between an itinerant life and a life itinerated across several stories, curtained rooms, a parlour bigger, broader, brighter than the nearest store many miles from what she once called ‘home’. Abby stands, the sun a burning wedge between the faceless man, the windowless house, the men that own her, own all, while she owns nothing; no one. Abby stands, Abby stares, hands smoothing a dress hewn good as stone, encrusted with mud, stiffened in the chill morning’s light, and the haste-stricken rush of many people pan-handling wheat, dirt embellished fast into grooves of wheels and shoeless heels. Abby stands, a darkening choice, a choiceless choice, between love as good as dead and love as dead as an unlit fire: no embers, no flames, no sun blessing smiling faces and outstretched palms.
Abby stands, sees herself: a young girl, a farmhand, a failed woman, handed down, passed around. She scratches her wrist with her dirt-lined nails; she catches the scurry and call of a creature crying to the left of her. Night and day she sees the ground hit the sky and the sky smack the ground, and never a roof over her head to shield her from it all. Abby stands, absorbs this loudly dawning moment, a coarse awakening, a reverberating revelation, one to return to, one that will return to her. Fast-dimming silence, the cawing of night birds, the clamour of labourers, liquor-fuelled revels, camp site fables, drunks drowning deep in a fiddle’s dwindling sound.
Light bathing wet feet dry, rivulets of light, light-lit rivers, pebble-grazing and mad-wild, never to slip in the same place twice, she murmurs. Never to slip in the same place twice.
What does it mean to be a ghost of the earth? What does it mean to haunt a particular space and time, yet not be there? Across several of Baker’s paintings, two similar figures hesitantly appear in the painted vistas; there and not there. In Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds (2022), a faceless female figure plays with terse tufts of grass, while wild plants, shrubs and soil obscure her green-clad form. She is there, in the depths of minute and incremental change, fingers in the soft richness of the land, grasping its stirring secrets, in the grit and potential abundance of the ground. She’s not there, her face seared
with sky, her head brimming cumulus, at once clouded and aerated, the atmosphere no longer aloft, but adrift, seeping down, seizing the contemplative space where a mind should be. Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds boasts of the same paradoxical verticality as many of the titles: the downward thrust of the upwards sky, the upward force of the downtrodden earth meeting in one distinctly indistinct form: a woman – or an apparition of one. Solidity and spectrality unite in the faceless being facing earth’s full substance, in the inverted schema of it all, so that she who is featureless appears all the more featured, fleshed out, fully real and whole in striations of air and sky and liquid cirrus. This is Baker’s meditation – not so much of being one with our surrounds, but being entirely and phenomenally of it. Not a broken particle or a particular thing floating free in the skyscape or laying low in the landscape, but particles with its particles, crystals of its cells and cellular crystallisations of nature’s ancient seas and trees and dormant minute beings. Lying low in the grass, head in the clouds, the spectral woman, soon to phase out then phase in again – there, not there – knows this; she knows her body belongs to these ever-changing, magnificently fluctuating greens, to the greying blues, the turning tides of the vast expanse above.
Dwelling in the expanse, it dwells in her, expanding, expending, outwards. A deciduous void, a falling hollow, filling from inside and internally spiralling out. Baker’s figure at once haunts the earth and is haunted by it (Burke’s sublime); she is but a memory on its restless rotations and it is a memory buried deep, bursting forth in her cells, dying star-like, under skin, tooth and nail. Though but a memory, her reminiscence of nature’s nature – its roving waves of loose yellowing decay growing green again come spring – revisits, retrieves, revives and relives these haunting haunts. Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds stills us with its stilling insistence that the natural world, of which we are solidly a part, slows for no one and nothing but its own course.
Lying low to the ground, head in the sky, Baker’s figure knows what it is to feel heaviness and lightness at once. She knows what it is to haunt the fields and be haunted by them; to heed the sparrow, to hear the lark; to be known and unknown in seeded soil; to be free in the air-borne flight of thought.
In the shadow of the house and the shadow of the man, was the shadow of a woman. Abby’s shadow fell small and slight across the wet grass, a quiet pool of black to slip into. This marked the extent of her life and life choices; this and this and this. From the dark outline of head to the slope of shoulder and arm; from the cinched waist to the curvature of a bell-shaped skirt, the shadow wavered dark to the left then to the right, depending on how she arched her back and turned her neck. An upturned canopy of dark, the shadow caught her to itself: a hollow grave rising up, a shallow house sunken down, a roofless shed to keep the tools of her thoughts safe, though unpolished. Safety did not lie in the bricks and mortar ahead of her, no more than it did in the strong arms folded behind. Safety was this small plot forged of self and darkening green beneath.
So she would crouch down, gathering knees to chin, in the grassy patch of shadow. In her own furrowed grass, her own body’s tent, the frail demarcations of skin and plant, cooling in the breeze of this here shade; cooling in the twilight air, the green-streaked sky, the bluing fields surrounding, shrouding, her.
The only place to rest a tired head was here and here and here, in the rounded corners of her body’s dark slender self. The only place to rest her head was close to the ground, a soft animal; not far from the clouds, a feathered thing. The only place was in the memory of a floating leaf, a swirl of water, the damp rocks where unstarched linen dried. Head full of clouds, a rain storm brewed again; a rainstorm and a rainbow in this one grass-damp plot.
Resting her head upon the grass, she remembered a fellow traveller on the train wagon, wearied and harried, coated in coal, the stench and struggle and strain of life staining face, clothes and soul. She did not want that life or this life she had on the road; she did not like the pain of poverty any more than the taste of unripe corn. Lying close to the ground she could profess all this, from here and here and here; from the setting sun to the dimming of her own shadow, all belonged to her. She could pretend she was as rich in the splendour of the field as she was, in truth, poor.
Like Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds, the painting What a Thing to Be Still When Everything is Moving (2022), is inspired by the cinema of Terence Malick. The brochure from the gallery observes the cinematic quality of both – and there certainly is celluloid magic in the breathing frame of Baker’s works.
Like film, Baker’s paintings share a density of time and space compacted and flattened onto one surface; like film, she uses her medium to stretch out moments, to recreate temporalities, to slow things down, speed things up, according to the nature of being – not the unnatural nature of chronology. Her figures and worlds are, subsequently, cellulose as well as cellular; they are embedded with meaning, so that they are elastically of and beyond the stretch, the stint, the life span of the painted scene and painting itself.
What a Thing to Be Still When Everything is Moving captures this cellular and cellulose elasticity. Inspired by Malick’s 1978 feature-length film, Days of Heaven, it hazily depicts the same young woman daydreaming in Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds; however, in this work her face is no longer lucent with sun and cloud, but feelingly substantiated with earthen flesh tones of orange and brown. Despite this change, we know the figure to be reminiscent of, a spectre for, ideationally (a)kin to Malick’s character, Abby. Baker’s figure has Abby’s heart-shaped jaw, her brown hair piled lushly atop her head, the same tendrils spilling down along neck and shoulders, the same pensive intensity and inquisitiveness in her surrounds. An itinerant migrant moving around the US in the early nineteenth-century, Abby moves whither the wind takes her – or, wherever her reckless, hot-headed boyfriend, Bill, does. When Bill accidentally kills the foreman at a steel mill, Abby is forced to flee with him; when Bill accidentally kills Abby’s husband later in the film, she is again forced to go on the run. Torn between two men, or rather the various forms of protection and freedom they each afford and embody, Abby’s life is rarely her own. In fact, it is ambiguous as to whether her life becomes her own at the end, after the demise of both, when she is seen hopping a ride on a train packed full of soldiers. Blown hither and thither by the whims and passions and volatile powers of male figures, Abby is often caught between decisions posited to her by others. Standing on the cusp of options not her own, Abby often surveys a world which she is subject to and rarely a subject in; so much so that this line, this surveying stage, is all she solitarily, subjectively possesses.
Baker knows this; she knows that this instant, this cusp, this line before Abby steps into a life not her own is all she owns. Rather than see this choicelessness play out in her paintings like Malick does in his film, Baker amplifies this moment, lays a stress on this near-powerless positionality. (We could say, the agon of Abby’s life is the angle with which the artist follows, applies and measures). The men are cut out; the restlessness of one and the steadiness of the other omitted too. Instead, we have Abby, in this between place, owning the dilemma – or the deliberation – of what she may or may not choose; who she may or may not embrace. And we have the natural land that is neither restless nor steady too, but boundless and abounding in both contrary forces, conflicting then conflating either side of her. Baker gives Abby her elemental world back – the world she is rightfully of and to which she will rightfully return. The manmade decisions or indecisions are suspended, held asunder, buried or blown out of sight. Abby, treading the waters of her own inner depths – as reverberated by nature’s continual ebbs and flows, its swirling eddies and dramatic drifts and shifts, its stilling movement and moving stillness – is all we see.
She will lie here for a little while, just a little while, longer. She will take her knees to herself, hug the soles of feet bruised from endless walking with hands chafed and cut from unrefined wheat – and work. She will smell the night air, hear the pea-hens cawing, see their iridescent colours fan out across the blueing night sky. She will have this here pillow of dense green and have this here mattress of stony ground. She will taste the dew; moisture from uphill blanketing great bodies of earth over her small one. She will feel this here ache, creeping up, up, up the narrow of her back, her spine, her temples, an ache she knows to be crawling up, up, up from the browning belly of the ground, into the empty belly of her own hungry self. She will listen to the calls of the birds, identify each one, whisper the names of some, quietly savour those of others. She will feel the scurrying of wood-bound animals, the field mice, the rabbits, the smaller insects that never scare her; crickets and curlews sending their varied notes along the grasses, along the tops of leaves, the lightness of the heavier air, the limbs of low-sinking trees, up, up, up, with the thoughts and prayers and wishes of all animals, human or otherwise.
She will heed only this moment, where she is grass and sky and trees, a stricken thing, struck by the vitality and sympathy of the world around. Struck senseless into a sensing state, a seer of low-lying visions and long lost sounds, the symphony of a roving world, rotating, leaf by falling leaf, on this here spot.
When looking at these two paintings, I want to ask Baker ‘why this film?’ What is it about Malick’s vision that arrested her own and moved her enough to paint? Malick’s gaze – via cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler – is certainly a male one. The romanticisation of migrant life, of Texan panhandlers and rolling prairies (though filmed in Canada); of dancing wheat fields and the propertied American dream so few could aspire to, let alone ascertain, is narrated by a child – a girl child – but shot through with the encompassing, sweeping gaze of male vision. That’s not to say Malick presents his female characters through a lens of desire or disregard; nor that he completely elides the difficulties facing Abby and Bill (there is a scene where frost lies thick and heavy on their faces, as it does the blanket they shelter under in the open air of a snow-capped field). But there is the supposed unadulterated joy of their life, the magical half-light of stills filmed at sunset or sunrise that seek to bathe itineracy and vagrancy and general precarity in a warmth and glow such figures barely would have known. We have romanticised panoramic sweeps around camp sites and convivial clusters of jazz musicians and performers and fiddlers, all of whom would have worked over twelve hours a day, the field their only house and home and garden, not to mention place of work. The environment of all environments, inescapable of all weathers and storms. Perhaps this romantic outlook – the beauty in the precarious living and lives of people like Abby – offers dignity, sincere sympathy, a kind of care? For me, the vision wades deep in the crystal clear waters and silky corn lustre (and lucre) of North America’s lands, without touching on the true horrors and splendour already existent in the southern prairies.
That Baker abandons the luminescence of Malick’s gold-flushed fields in favour of a variegated palette of greens, browns, beiges and blues shows her vision lies elsewhere. That’s not to say the enchanting vistas and enchantment of the natural, the ecological, the environmental are no longer there – they very much are. But her gaze – to be sure a female one in its female-centric focus and its equally expansive reach – zones in on how nature’s grandeur relates to and pulses through us. It takes in the minuscule and majuscule episodes of nature, and explores how we, as individuals relate to or resolve them in and of and for ourselves.
Situated between the demands of two men, of two alternate lives, Abby, in the paintings by Baker, turns to the demands of nature – because nature makes demands of us too. It demands of our bodies as much as our souls (despite how traditional painters of landscapes would have it), and shapes both. It demands us to listen and surrender to its melodies and beats and refrains. It demands us to acknowledge our dependency on, our proximity with, a world we think we are independent of and distant from and can control. It demands us to work with, rather than against it, least we risk our own demise (as Malick’s farmer knows too well). In its vast oceanic and geological body, striated and stratified, layer upon layer, nature demands us to consider the bodies – so many precious though precariously held bodies – it homes.
I sense that Baker senses this; that in allowing Abby, a vulnerable woman stood between the demands of two men, two fatal fates, two dead-end directions, to find joy and peace, consolation and consideration, in this man-less, nature-led, ever-opening moment, she finds herself, even for a brief stint of a second. She finds her home, her standing against the full and vast stature of the natural world.
There in the greens, which are blues and yellows; and the browns, which are reds and greens and so yellows and blues again; and in the oranges, which are reds and yellows too – in this whole green and greening vision, we find long lost lands, living long grasses, crops to feed empty hands as well as beaks; hidden wells of water welling up and reaching through rocks and roots and stems and forests, reaching up and back, watering the stories of the poor, the dispossessed, washing the broken forsaken histories of stolen fields and taken terrain.
In these green and greening visions, we find Abby, we find ourselves, we find the ghosts of what we were, what we are and what we will be, rushing through lands yet to be pastured; meadows yet to be scythed.
In giving Abby that moment, that magic hour, that half-light, Baker gives us a passing view that we can pass through and into; a green passage, a parsing green, a green that passes understanding, pausing the demands of man’s chronology, man’s technology, man’s time, man’s telos of expendable loss.
Abby stands in the night air, in the soon-to-be moon-lit hour. She stands and takes in the scent of nature’s infinite and miniscule decisions; in its incremental beginnings and unseen, unwitnessed ends; in the grandness of this instant and its diminishing paucity of power. Seeing green, she goes to move, a step towards the house, a step away from a loveless lover; in seeing green she sees the browns, the beiges, the blues, the warring colours of herself harmonising into one. She sees newness, she sees freshness like newly cut corn; she sees conviction and direction; she sees the ‘stop’ in the ‘starting’ again and the ‘start’ in the stopping of her turning; she sees the grain of the tree branch running backwards and the stars of the sky falling forwards into her palms; she sees the hushed breath of the world released, breath of her breath, pulsing through her, moving through her, moving her on, leaving what was once cold and shaded into what is now warm, what is now green, what is now lit from the inside, out.
Megan Baker‘s exhibition ‘Where the Ground Meets the Sky’ ran from 8th September – 1st October in the Gillian Jason Gallery, 19 Great Titchfield St., London W1W 8AZ.
Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer and the founding editor-in-chief of Lucy Writers. She completed her BA in English Literature at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and has an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies from King’s College, London, and holds a foundation diploma in fine art from Camberwell College of Arts. She is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at UCL and teaches undergraduate students in the department. Hannah regularly writes for online magazines such as The London Magazine, The Arts Desk, The White Review, Club des Femmes and others. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction book on women artists and drawing. Follow her on Twitter @hhgsparkles and Instagram @hannahhg25
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