CHICAGO — Within half an hour of arriving at Leslie Baum’s studio, I’m settled on her sofa beside sunny windows overlooking elevated train tracks, sipping tea and holding one of her shaped, hand-painted canvas buckwheat pillows on my lap. The studio is in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, and the building is still under construction and not fully occupied. But her space is cozy, warm, and familial. That feeling of being transported, and seeking connection, is what Baum transmits in her work and process as well.
Her most recent series is part of her “plein-air painting project,” in which she employs elements of watercolors (hers and other people’s) made during outdoor painting dates. Older works combine shard-forms and shapes derived from multiple modernist paintings. She’s also extended her painting practice into full-gallery installations: mounting unstretched canvases on the wall and the floor, and scattering her hand-painted meditation pillows on the floor to create color environments that encourage slow-looking and suggest portals into sumptuous spaces.
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Her studio is evidence of the variety of her materials and media: ceramic, paper, canvas, and short animations. Yet nothing here feels showy. Her touch, and the eccentric shapes enlivening her paintings, lend the work a lightness and openness. And although her use of heterogenous media and borrowings from other artists is often associated with postmodern strategy and detachment, her work is the opposite: intimate, direct, and personal.
Baum was born in 1971, and lives and works in Chicago. Her work has been exhibited recently at Living Room, 65Grand, 4th Ward Project Space, and Devening Projects, all in Chicago; Cleve Carney Gallery at the College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois; and Geary Contemporary, New York. Her work will be shown in exhibitions at the Unity Gallery of Maharishi International University, Fairfield, Iowa, opening April 17, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois, opening September 5.
Jennifer Samet: Did you grow up with art around you? Are there visual experiences from childhood that hold special meaning for you?
Leslie Baum: I like to say, and I don’t think it’s untrue, that I grew up in an art museum. My mother was an art educator, and we spent a lot of time in museums. My early childhood years were in New Jersey, so my first museums were the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
At age five, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and my mother worked as a docent at the High Museum of Art. While she worked her shift, I was left to my own devices for two or three hours in the museum. My memories are really about that experience and the architecture of the space, although I remember a Robert Rauschenberg silkscreen that I loved, and a weird John Baldessari with the circles of color.
Neither of my parents were professional artists, but they were both makers. My mom taught me how to draw. She was a watercolorist and a hobby ceramicist. I used to go to her pottery studio when I was little. My dad was an amateur photographer and we had a darkroom in the house. He was passionate about street photography, and during family vacations, he would insist on driving back roads so we could chat up interesting characters. As a child I did not appreciate that! At home, when he would print, I would go down to the darkroom and watch and push around paper in the developer and fixative. It was wonderful to have that experience.
JS: Where did you study?
LB: I didn’t go to art school, and I don’t have an MFA. I went to the University of Vermont for environmental studies. I was taking art classes as electives, and suddenly I realized that I had more art electives than classes in my major. It became a situation. So I did my junior year abroad at the Glasgow School of Art to see if that was really my path. I was in the painting department, and found myself out of my depth.
I credit that year as turning me into a painter, because I just didn’t want to suck. I worked so hard to just come close to my peers, which I didn’t do, because they were so technically skilled. Then I couldn’t stop. I graduated from UVM with a BA in visual art, with a minor in environmental studies.
I thought I would go to graduate school but my father was dying. I came to Chicago to be there with him, help take care of him. I lived at home because my mom had never lived alone, and I wanted to be there for her. I wasn’t paying rent, so I could have a studio, and work part-time, which was very luxurious. I realized my friends were all going to grad school and incurring debt. I was basically having the same experience: I had peers; I had a studio; I was having conversations; I was seeing shows. So I just decided that’s what I was going to do.
JS: Can you talk about the work that you made then, which employed “shard” forms, and how that evolved?
LB: I had been making work out of memory and travel — responding to encounters I had in new places. When you are traveling, you often feel more open and engaged. Everything penetrates; your armor is down. I was thinking about that feeling of receptiveness, and trying to share that through a painting.
A Kabbalah story that I was researching dovetailed with that idea. It is a mystical origin story: that before Creation, there were vessels that contained everything – all divinity. They were imperfect, and they cracked and fell. By doing mitzvah (good deeds), and Tikkun Olam (world repair / pursuing social justice), you are, piece by piece, bringing the vessels and that holiness back together. I saw this as an expansive metaphor about how to be in the world, but also about how I would make paintings. I was taking pieces and putting them together in my own way.
I had visited Pueblo sites in New Mexico and started making paintings based on photographs of pottery shards. They appeared abstract because they were funny shapes with dots and dashes on them, but they were actually pretty literal. Eventually that body of work reached its natural conclusion. I was aware that I didn’t totally understand the symbolic meaning of the material I was using. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the same methodology with something that I do feel versed in.
It was clear that it would be modern painting. I think of artists like Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Arthur Dove, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner as familial because they’ve been with me my whole life. I started with favorite paintings, and made printouts of them. I traced pottery shard shapes on the back and cut them out and arranged them the way I had seen pottery shards at Pueblo sites.
After that, I let go of the shard shape and started finding shapes within the architecture of the painting. For example, in a Bonnard, I was cutting out a pattern from a chair and putting that into the painting. It evolved into wholesale referencing and sampling from other artists.
JS: There is one body of work titled Shape of the Day (2016-18), in which each painting is given a subtitle using the initials of two other referenced artists. Can you tell me about this series, whose dimensions are all 16 by 20 inches?
LB: I used a circular shape that came from an Ellsworth Kelly, a plant-form shape that came from a Léger still life, an arch that came from a Georgia O’Keeffe, and an equilateral triangle. These shapes would frame out one 20th-century painting, and the space around it would be from another 20th-century painting. So it was a conversation between two artists, but framed by a third artist.
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After the 2016 election, my work changed. I wanted to immerse myself in beauty and connect with something larger than the present moment, to not lose perspective. I was looking to art history for comfort and catharsis, and all the work I turned to happened to be landscapes. I also decided to make small paintings because it felt important to be focused and intentional. It spoke to a tenderness and care. So, for about three years, almost all of the paintings were 16 by 20 inches.
JS: It’s interesting. I think there was also a lot of pressure on artists at that moment to make work that was overtly political.
LB: Alma Thomas is one of my favorite painters. She was making abstract work out of the landscape and unabashedly, whole-heartedly, seeking joy and beauty in the natural world. Given the time she was living, as a Black woman, it is significant that she was making celebratory paintings about nature and seasonal change, and that she saw painting as a way to find beauty in a world that wasn’t always beautiful. The work was a place to rise up.
JS: It makes me think about the early 20th-century “Pioneers of Abstraction” and their utopian vision about the power of art. Do you relate to these artists?
LB: I do. It may relate to growing up in the art museum. Also, popular graphic design and visual culture was informed by that aesthetic in the era when I was growing up. I look at the cartoons and animations of The Electric Company, which I was also raised on, and now think it explains so much about my aesthetic. There is an osmosis of exposure. But I do also relate to the optimism: a hope for the transcendent power of making and images.
JS: You’ve done several installation projects, at Geary Gallery in New York, and Cleve Carney Gallery at the College of DuPage. These shows incorporated meditation pillows, floor paintings and unstretched canvases on the wall, as well as ceramic shaped works arranged on shelves on the wall. Do you consider yourself an installation artist?
LB: I think of myself as a painter who works in various scales and supports and surfaces. I have an expanded painting practice that often involves installations. In this sense, Sonia Delaunay is an important artist for me. She collaborated with other artists, she was multidisciplinary, and she had an egalitarian view of the things she produced, from textiles to paintings to collage.
In two overlapping exhibitions in 2016 in Chicago, both titled Mountain and Sea, I referenced Helen Frankenthaler’s seminal painting. For the SXU Gallery at St. Xavier University, I made a floor painting out of nine canvas tarps that covered the whole footprint of the gallery. I envisioned it as my first truly participatory painting. The paintings were all sampled from landscape paintings, with saturated, hopeful colors. I had the idea that people could come in from the gray drudgery of February in Chicago and walk on a sumptuous, light-filled landscape, lie on it, or sit on it. It was exciting to offer this invitation. It turned out that the students were very uncertain about walking on the painting, so it took a lot of guidance from the monitors in the gallery.
For the other 2016 show, at the artist-run 4th Ward Project Space, I made a large equilateral triangle — the mountain — which extended from the floor to the ceiling. I was thinking about the triangle as a mantra that you could focus on. The space was almost like an atrium, since you enter directly from the outside. I hoped that people would really sit with the work, so I decided to get a meditation pillow. However, I realized that a pillow in the middle of the room would read like an art object, so it couldn’t be arbitrary. On the internet, I found a company that made meditation pillows out of raw cotton duck — canvas. I began painting on them. They turned into paintings you can sit on.
Most recently I was part of a group show at the Weinberg Newton Gallery, which has a social justice mission. During our show, they partnered with the David Lynch Foundation, which brings transcendental meditation to at-risk populations. I made a meditation room, and collaborated with another artist, Meredith Haggerty, who made audio pieces and crafted guided meditations. Every week, people were really using the room. That was the biggest success in terms of the participatory element I had envisioned for the work.
JS: You use the name “window seats” to describe the pillows, and you use the name “rabbit holes” for other works. What are those, and why did you call them “rabbit holes”?
LB: I think of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he reaches for his back pocket — where there is no back pocket — and throws down a rabbit hole and goes somewhere. I was thinking about that as a humorous way to consider the idea of a portal. A painting in and of itself is a portal. It’s the picture plane where you get to look into another world. There is always a possibility to have a larger outlook on what’s possible. So the rabbit holes are the larger unstretched canvases that are cut into a shape and mounted flat onto a wall, as if you could just go through them.
JS: I know that now you are deeply engaged in your “plein air painting project” and I see your posts on Instagram: photographs of painting dates with other artists. Can you tell me about this project?
LB: It was very fortuitous and unexpected, which is a nice trajectory for art. I learned about a potential artist’s residency at the Garfield Park Conservatory. I’m a real plant person, and if wasn’t a painter, I would probably have been a naturalist or a botanist. So I was very interested. I came up with this idea, which was that I would go on “painting dates” in the Conservatory. I would invite my peer group and colleagues, as well as people who weren’t visual artists, and also the general public. We would sit together and we would work from the conservatory. Then I would use my methodology of making larger work out of parts of these little paintings.
Well, I applied but I didn’t get the residency. However, I liked sharing my idea with people at openings or parties, and I discovered that everyone thought it was a great idea. So even though I didn’t get the residency, I decided to try it out. I am not a representational painter, and have never worked from a direct source; it is always mediated through secondary source material. So the idea of plopping down in a park and painting is not native to me, and I also knew it was not native to anyone I was going to invite. I was launching into this thing that was completely untested.
The first painting date was in May 2017. I was visiting a friend at her lake house in Wisconsin, and we painted together. She’s not an artist. It was weirdly, powerfully delightful – so unexpected. We both loved it and kept talking about it for weeks afterwards. It became a thing.
I started sharing it on Instagram. That was helpful in terms of getting people to want to paint with me. I’ve painted with over 70 people and had over 90 dates at this point. I’ve found that the time is extremely meaningful, and the types of conversations that happen are deep and revealing. It is intimate. Making work is extremely vulnerable. We don’t normally do it in front of someone else. And making work that isn’t our own practice is even more vulnerable. If you’re not an artist, and you’re painting with an artist, then that conjures up a lot of feelings. But then it’s all totally fine, because the stakes are low. It’s tiny little watercolors. I provide all the materials; I bring a stack of watercolor blocks, brushes, and a little folding table and chairs.
It took almost a year of painting dates before I started making paintings from them. At first I was very uncertain about the imagery. Because they are small watercolors, there’s not as much density of mark-making or image as there is in the paintings I had been working from. But now that I have a sense of how to work with the material, I find it super exciting.
I’ve come to think of this work as a dialogue about expertise and lack of expertise. When you do something for a long time you gain a certain amount of expertise. That’s not always helpful. So getting back to that time or feeling where you don’t know what you’re doing is really exciting. I rediscovered how I use paint by changing the source material.
Over time I’ve understood that the two things that are most important in my life have been nurturing friendships and relationships, and making paintings. Without realizing it, this project brings those two things together. I did more thinking about the plein-air painting project during a fellowship for Jewish artists at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning. We were asked to think about how our practice broadly intersected with Judaism. I thought about the project as a moveable Sabbath: a sacred time out from our schedules. There usually aren’t phones; we are sitting close; we are paying close attention to something around us.
Drawing puts you into a flow state, where you lose track of time. If you are making observational drawing, the deep looking opens up worlds that you hadn’t noticed because you were moving too fast.
I think about all of the experiences in my life in museums, sitting on a good bench with a work of art. That has shaped the work I’m doing. I would like to offer that to someone else. It motivates me to make something that is worth looking at, where the time in contemplation has value.