Artist Interview with Skidmore Contemporary Art
Skidmore Contemporary Art: If you could choose a different medium to work in, what would it be and why?
Richard Baker: In fact, I did choose to work in another medium years ago when I decided to become a tv producer instead of a painter. I thought it would be a bigger canvas and it was but now I am enjoying painting.
SCA: How would you describe your creative process?
RB: Quiet desperation! Just kidding (sort of). I take candid photos of things I see in my day to day life that strike me in some way and then I try to re-create that visual experience in the painting.
SCA: Has social media impacted your work in any way? If yes, how? If not, why do you think that is?
RB: Not really, but I do enjoy getting some reaction to my work from other artists on Instagram and really enjoy seeing so many great paintings from all over the world. It hasn’t impacted me because I don’t sell online and the other artists I see do what they do and I do what I do.
SCA: What is your most memorable museum experience? Can you briefly describe it?
RB: In 1970, I travelled to NYC to see the groundbreaking Photorealism show “Twenty-two Realists” at the Whitney and was profoundly affected by the paintings of Chuck Close, Richard Estes and others. The work affected me in some deep-seated way that I’ve never understood.
SCA: What is something unexpected that has impacted/influenced your artistic style? (It could be a person, film, music, etc.)
RB: Nothing really. My style was pretty much established in my college painting classes (see below).
SCA: If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?
RB: Besides my other career in the entertainment business, I’d probably be a musician. A prominent band leader in Vegas once told me I could make a living there as a Neil Young impersonator.
SCA: What city/town/geographical location has provided the most inspiration for you?
RB: I like the like in both the California desert and the Hamptons.
SCA: Were you professionally trained as an artist? Tell us about that experience.
RB: I studied painting for 3 years at the University of Pennsylvania with the Realist painter Rackstraw Downes. The head of Penn’s Fine Arts Department then was Neil Welliver who I believe Rackstraw had studied with at Yale. Although I never met Neil, somehow his way of looking at things and reducing them into color blocks was transferred to me.
SCA: If you could sit at a dinner table with 3 famous artists, who would they be? Why?
RB: I’ll go with Fairfield Porter to ask him about his use of light, Robert Bechtle to discuss his choice of candid subjects, and photographer Andreas Gursky about how he captures such amazing landscapes.
SCA: What challenges do you face as an artist that people might not expect?
RB: Fear of losing my art mojo. Whenever I start a new painting I wonder if the ability that mysteriously showed up years ago will just as mysteriously disappear. So far it hasn’t!
SCA: When is your favorite time of day to create?
RB: My energy is best in the morning but I’ll plow through whatever I have to finish any time of the day or night.
SCA: What advice would you give to your younger self?
RB: Be more confident with women! Oh, you mean regarding art? Paint more!
The paintings in Richard Baker's third one-person exhibition at Skidmore Contemporary Art explore the distinctive figurative subject matter for which his work is known and reveal a new emphasis—the luminous landscape of the California desert.
About his work, Baker has written:
"My paintings explore the effect of light and it's absence on scenery, objects and figures. Though representational, the paintings also have abstract qualities. The paintings have more to do with my eye than my psyche and are a celebration of the sensual pleasure of light and color."
Baker's desert includes not just vast open vistas of land and sky, dramatic weather, and empty roads leading to the horizon, but the cultivated landscapes of Palm Springs and ‘All Other Desert Cities.' This desert includes the manicured green plains of golf courses, storm clouds over freeway overpasses, and colorfully attired spectators at tennis matches.
Concurrent with his greater emphasis on landscape, Baker's new work has grown dramatically in physical size. Of the sixteen works in the exhibition, most are of a scale in which the viewer literally becomes physically immersed in the imagery, brushstrokes, and color.
The first thing you notice when looking at a realist-style Richard Baker painting, other than its subject, are the colors. They're efficient in number and exacting in tonal value. On closer inspection, you notice abstract qualities, particularly in the landscapes engulfing his human and canine subjects. They’re planes of color, sometimes geometric in execution. Baker reduces his compositions to their simplest elements, flattened and represented by small blocks of painstakingly mixed color. The pictures appear more impressionist than photorealistic. At least two in the "At Leisure" series—Enjoying the View and Into the Chocolate Mountains—could trace to early California Impressionism, which infused the prevailing style of the early-1900s with the Golden State's sun-kissed optimism. The subjects in Baker's contemporary approach pierce the scenes, adding a sense of scale and dimension, as well as his signature shadows. In Dog Noir, a scored sidewalk provides the background for eye-dragging shadows of his Basenji, Caroline, and himself. This series asks you to slow down, look, and sink into the scenes.
Richard Baker is an emerging artist who lives in Los Angeles and La Quinta, CA. Although best known for his long and successful career in the entertainment industry, Baker has been able to find time in the past few years to finally pursue his lifelong passion for painting. Baker has a recognizable and sophisticated painting style. His subject matter is fresh and uplifting, and he demonstrates a skillful handling of form and color characterized by his interest in light, shadow, and geometry.
Baker’s motifs often depict outdoor leisure activities in California such as a baseball game in Anaheim, stand up paddle boarding, golfing and architectural tours in Palm Springs, the BNP Paribas Tennis Tournament, and even the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. His choice in subject matter reflects his personal lifestyle and interests. By focusing on these motifs, Baker distinguishes himself within the representational genre as well as creates art that is relatable to his collectors who often share similar interests and passions. His paintings are accessible rather than conceptual, and he likes to refer to his work as “art that needs no explanation”.
Despite the overarching motifs apparent in his art, Baker maintains that he often doesn’t fully understand his attraction to a particular scene but that he only paints things he has seen that caused him to experience either a visceral reaction or that resonated psychologically with him in some way. However, upon examination of his works, it becomes apparent that the psychological resonance Baker describes is at least partially derived from the provocative geometrical forms and bold lighting that characterize his scenes. Baker’s strong visual perception enables him to see and react to the beauty of form and light overlooked by many. Baker claims “these paintings are my way of communicating how I see, how I think, and what I like.” Baker’s paintings enable one to find and reflect upon the beauty of simplicity, such as the quiet moment of a paddle boarder gliding across the water or a golfer standing alone on a course preparing to swing.
Baker’s visual perception is heightened through his technique. He sculpts his figures with strong tonal ranges, playing with light and shadow to imply depth and space. His simplified planes of color imply forms rather than describe detail, creating motifs of abstraction that make his paintings feel strikingly contemporary. Baker is bold in his treatment of color, which is strongly pigmented, as well as in his application of paint. His direct application of paint and visible brushstrokes, with no under-painting or glazing, are thickly built up upon the canvas creating a slight impasto that adds to the complexity of the painting. Baker’s subject matter, treatment of figures, strong colors and light have drawn parallels to artists from the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Despite these comparisons, Baker maintains a unique and recognizable style, characterized by his synthesis of representation and abstraction, celebration of geometry, and handling of light and color.
The training Baker received years ago as a student at the University of Pennsylvania from the renowned realist painter Rackstraw Downes highly influences the technical qualities of his painting style today. Downes trained Baker’s eye to see in a painterly fashion, awakening a heightened visual sensibility that has inspired him to paint how he sees. Baker was also inspired by a Photorealist Exhibit at the Whitney that he visited as part of his college studies featuring figure paintings by Chuck Close and urban street scenes by Richard Estes. He describes the aesthetic experience of the show as “touching me in some deep-seated psychological way I never quite understood,” which ultimately served to deepen and solidify his love and appreciation for art.
Despite receiving encouragement by several artists to pursue a career as a painter, Baker chose to pursue a bigger canvas as a television producer and has only recently been able to devote substantial time to painting. Television production enabled him to combine his art and music talents with his business education, and provided him a forum to impact and reach a broad worldwide audience. His initial success at producing music specials for MTV, the “Live from Lincoln Center” series, various PBS documentaries, and one of the first stand-up comedy television series evolved into a long-term career spent managing the careers of and producing tv series and movies (“The Drew Carey Show”, “The Santa Clause” trilogy) for many comedy performers including Tim Allen and Drew Carey. He currently is an executive producer of the Tim Allen/ABC sitcom “Last Man Standing”.
Much of his success in the entertainment industry has translated into Baker’s practice as a painter. The many hours spent scrutinizing video images while filming and editing television shows sharpened his sense of composition and eye for shading, color, and contrast. The broad public response to his shows and movies has given Baker the confidence to trust his instincts and to remain true to his personal style of working—an important skill for painters, who often face adversity and criticism from the public. Baker explains “entertainment, fun, and culture have always been central to my work and that focus carries into work as a painter.” Perhaps his work in the comedy business is responsible for the happy and lighthearted themes found across his canvases.
Though his entertainment career for many years left him only a little time to paint, Baker maintained his interest in art as a collector. Inspired by the paintings he purchased by such artists as Kenton Nelson, Raimonds Staprans, Ross Penhall, Glenn Ness and David Ashwell, Baker eventually realized that he was collecting the style of works that he desired to paint himself if given the time. During his short career as a painter, the tables have turned, and now a number of sophisticated art collectors have purchased Baker’s paintings, a phenomenon Baker has described as one of his most significant achievements.
Although still early in his painting career, Baker has developed a deeply personal and unique painting style enhanced by his years of creative experience in film and television. Just as his shows enabled audiences to find humor in everyday life, Baker’s paintings allow one to reflect upon beauty in the California lifestyle we so often take for granted.