Psychological Slips: The Sculptures of Trevor Baird
by Anna Kovler
Molding and firing clay is among the oldest recorded human activities. In the Ancient Near East, clay was imprinted with tiny lines to keep records of grain and other goods. The Greeks made clay vessels for eating and drinking and for honoring the dead, the surfaces covered in intricate geometric designs and abstracted figures. In his ceramic vases, tablets, and sculptures Trevor Baird combines this ancient language with the more contemporary aesthetic of comic books, creating hybrid objects that reject the rules of their constituent traditions. His comics either needlessly repeat or are abruptly cut, making it impossible to follow a linear narrative, turning them instead into psychological portraits and snapshots of daily life.
In one dream-like pattern, a face looks into its own reflection in a large kitchen knife held by a severed hand. In another sequence a pair of hands cradles its severed fingers and an arm smashes through a computer screen. A few repeating speech bubbles discuss ripping off Japanese pottery. Trying to make sense of these comics is of no use. Like deciphering a disturbing dream, the viewer must connect disparate puzzle pieces. “I used to draw a lot of comics, and I had a cash of drawings I wanted to use,” says Baird, “they are doodles or narratives that belong to a larger story, so I took that and edited it.”
In past works, Baird referred to identity formation by depicting Hollywood stars like Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon. He was interested in the gap between who a person really is, their likeness, and what others think them to be. Celebrities serve as a perfect example of an unstable or mysterious identity since the public starts to associate the roles they play with their “true” selves. “It’s really hard to represent someone accurately,” reflects Baird, “because you’re always drawing your own likeness, you just end up representing yourself and amalgamating that with what you assume that person to be.”
Baird works with porcelain slip that is extremely thin, giving his vessels a milky chalkiness resembling fresh cookie dough. As the clay rips and folds it also starts to look like pale skin with stretch marks, folds, and scars, the blueish lines of the comic drawings echoing tattoos. “There is not a lot you can control about the process, it’s a ‘fingers crossed’ way of making a piece,” he says.
After some inspection it becomes clear that we are looking at psychological portraits. Despite being non-linear, the theme of identity and its fragmentation emerges from the comics on the porcelain. On one vase, twin portraits of a woman repeat, suggesting perhaps the storyboard for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, with it’s mysterious plot and unstable identities. Other recurrent drawings refer to the identity of an artist, and the artist’s pain. We see a severed hand holding a pencil, and a weary character struggling to use a paintbrush so large that it reaches the top of his head.
The special combination of ripped and folded porcelain, sketchy lines of the comics, and theme of identity gives these works an exciting and multilayered complexity. It can be hard to invent something new when working with an ancient material, yet Baird has succeeded in conveying a unique and contemporary visual language through his deft handling of clay. Hitting a nerve that feels universal, these works capture the mechanisms and fragility of the artist’s identity, and by extension the mysterious nature of identity in general.
Trevor Baird’s exhibition A Satyr in the Creamery is on view at Arsenal Toronto from January 26 – March 30, 2019. Recent exhibitions include the group show Clay Today at The Hole in New York City. Upcoming exhibitions will take place at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, the Chromatic Festival in Montréal, and the Material Art Fair in Mexico City in February 2019.