OSL contemporary is proud to present an exhibition in London of new works by Vanessa Baird, one of the most distinct voices in Norwegian contemporary art. 'I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea' opens at No.9 Cork Street on 11 November and coincides with 'I Get Along Without You Very Well’, a show drawing on the artist’s Scottish heritage opening at the Glasgow Women’s Library in early November.
Baird’s work is storytelling of a kind that is both potently provocative and emphatically individual, drawing on a wide range of references from her own lived experiences, as well as from Scandinavian folklore and literature. Whether surreal or narrative, her intense and detailed drawings are often perceived as controversial, regularly commenting on contemporary political and social affairs and observations from personal domestic realities.
The show at No.9 Cork Street in London comprises two new series of charged creations made in pastel and watercolour: an extensive presentation of smaller format works that will be installed to cover entire walls of the gallery; and a series of larger individual works. For the exhibition in Glasgow, Baird has been working with the team at Glasgow Women’s Library and curator Gillian Fox to explore the archives and context of the library. Baird is half Scottish on her mother’s side and spent a lot of time in Scotland as a child. Her darkly comic, often brutally honest, portrayals of life are often credited to the Scottish wry sense of humour. Glasgow Women’s Library is the only Accredited Museum in the UK dedicated to women’s lives, histories and achievements, with a lending library, archive collections and innovative programmes of public events, exhibitions & learning opportunities.
'Vanessa Baird: I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea'
- Text by Roger Malbert
Vanessa Baird lives to draw – she says she has drawn every day for fifty years - and her life is her subject matter. In the images of her domestic environment, which particularly during the Covid 19 lockdown must have constituted her entire universe, she features as a character along with her mother and three children, the generations coexisting and mirroring each other as variations of a single persona - or the stages of life. She perhaps perceives her mother as her future self and her daughters as herself in retrospect; of course, as the artist she has the prerogative to project onto her subjects anything she chooses, and probably much that she does not consciously intend. Through the repeated exercise of picturing this larger-than-life family, seemingly squashed into rooms they have outgrown, getting on top of each other, their personalities have become wildly exaggerated. And since VanessaBaird’s comic idiom is essentially anti-idealist, in fact delighting in mockery and transgression, there is no room for sentimentality or minimalist perfection or politesse.
The impulse to lay bare the most abject and embarrassing secrets of personal life is a feature of a certain strain of anti-bourgeois avant-garde art, including feminist and performance art, and Baird’s unflinching self-exposure can be said to belong to that tradition. And the model of the pious but hypocritical middle class family, a paragon of harmony and order, keeping its dirty linen hidden from public view, has long been a target for socially critical artists and writers, generally to be deflated by magnifying its tensions and internal conflicts. Vanessa Baird’s realism, however, is leavened by humour and fantasy, the capricious imagination of an accomplished illustrator of ghoulish folk tales and gruesome fables. Faces and genitals are transposed; the head performs as phallus; eyeballs burst from their sockets; a furious little girl roasts her arms in the fire; blood spurts from a decapitated neck. These alarming excesses convey the heightened emotional tenor of impassioned family life.
Baird’s use of watercolour may appear to conform to the stereotypical feminine genre of art made in the home, but in her hands the genteel manners associated with that delicate medium are skilfully and fiercely overturned. With bold licks of the brush she creates an atmosphere of turbulence; agitated patterns swirl across wallpaper, carpets and bedspreads, while faces and bodies loom out in (occasionally lurid) shades of pink. Yet for all the intensity and claustrophobia of these domestic interiors, they somehow represent the safety of an enclosed space where the family with all its idiosyncrasies reigns and the world does not intrude. However, another dimension of reality has entered into some of the recent works in scenes of actual violence, reflecting the artist’s consciousness of the chaos and suffering Russia is inflicting on the population of Ukraine: children are now broken into bloody pieces; people going to the end of town may never return.
Those images are a reminder that Baird is not solely centred on her own small family circle but is an artist with a strong social conscience - as was acknowledged in 2018 when she was commissioned to design the Nobel Peace Prize Diploma. In the same year she produced her most ambitious large-scale drawing in pastel, You Are Something Else, a scathing denunciation of Norway’s indifference to the plight of refugees drowning at sea. There, her unruly spirit of laughter and derision was harnessed to a tragic vision. A lifetime of drawing has given Vanessa Baird the fluency and imaginative freedom to move seamlessly between comedy and pathos, tenderness and harsh satire, and in the process to say something original about what used to be called the human condition.
Vanessa Baird (b. 1963) lives and works in Oslo. She was educated at the National Academy of Arts, Oslo, Norway and the Royal College of Art, London, UK. Recent solo exhibitions include: Kunsthall Stavanger, NO (2021) Drawing Room in London, UK (2021), KODE in Bergen, NO (2018–19), OSL contemporary, NO (2018), Kunstnernes Hus, NO (2017) and Göteborg Konstmuseum, SE (2014). Her work is represented in the British Museum’s Prints and Drawing Collection as well as key Norwegian collections, such as The National Museum of Norway, Stavanger Kunstmuseum, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Sørlandets Kunstmuseum and KODE. Baird has done several permanent commissions in public spaces in Norway.
Roger Malbert is author of 'Drawing People: The Human Figure in Contemporary Art', and co-author of the forthcoming 'Drawing in the Present Tense', both published by Thames & Hudson. He was until 2018 Head of Hayward Gallery Touring at the Southbank Centre in London.'
The participation is kindly supported by OCA, Office for Contemporary Art Norway.