HETTY BAIZ: This Very Body
The body is at the center of human identity. It is after all the physical manifestation of our selves, and as such, is subject to all the various projections, idealizations, annihilations and insults that humans routinely administer toward themselves and each other. It is as well, our vehicle for physical connection to everything else. In the arts, the body has been regarded and employed as a vessel for the spirit, both an actual and metaphorical embodiment of universal truth. The female body, in particular, has held an auspicious place in human imagination, a constantly shifting double entendre of sacred and profane, across cultures and through countless narratives.
Near the end of one of our most ancient narratives, when Odysseus at last returns to Ithaca and slaughters all the "suitors" who have disgraced his home, his next order is to gather the "disloyal" women, and after forcing them to clear the bloody corpses, kill them all by brutal dismemberment. This unthinkably gruesome tale, rife with layers of inference, became a potent catalyst through which Hetty Baiz initiated a deep visual rumination on the nature of body, gender and spirit. The result, This Very Body, is a major ensemble of powerful presences, as ambiguous and ephemeral as they are haunting and visceral.
In a sort of private ritualized performance, Baiz began painting her own body and making imprints by pressing onto large sheets of paper, hanging the paper to dry like skin, intuitively dismantling and rearranging the parts, repeating the process, building images layer upon layer on tall wooden panels. As her process gained momentum, she added thick impasto, collaged paper and tile elements, offhanded private inscriptions, even burned the surfaces with a blow torch, transforming the panels into receptacles of resonant impulses.
What actually occurred through these actions was a transference of energy and empathy through material, a human activity originating with the primeval shamans that is the very essence of art-making. Baiz literally inhabits the figural image in her paintings, her body becoming one with the painted body through preternatural coalescence. The marks, abrasions, layers of information, are indistinguishable from the nuances of the artist's own being. The painting becomes an embodiment, in the truest sense, of raw human awareness.
As viewers, we can be easily seduced by the corporeal richness of these paintings, attracted by the otherness of their presence. The image of a female body held suspended charges our imagination, and taps into our cultural conditioning, our age-old ambivalence. The figure is at once coming into being, and dissolving into the surface, and is ultimately inseparable from the abraded material amalgamation. The only stability is the symmetry and verticality of the composition - everything else is in a state of perpetual flux. So too, the potential meanings shift, moment to moment, as our perceptions move in and out of focus. We sense the artist's state of unguarded existential inquiry. There are no answers, only questions.
In a subsequent, and equally complex series of works, Baiz has created large vague portraits of unnamed family members, taken from old snapshots. The images are made by weaving painted jute into small squares that, when assembled into a grid, form the total image. It is a baffling and complex process that serves to distance or obscure the subject, and emphasizes the heavily textured physical properties of the object. The image is literally built into the material. Again implying a constant state of flux, the portraits appear to be fading into the rugged surface, or perhaps emerging from it. The identity of the subject is absorbed into rich materiality, and charged with the almost manic intensity of the process.
These works, also inspired by women and catalyzed by deep empathy, grew from Baiz's experience of working with female weavers in underserved communities in South Africa. Here Baiz is again placing herself in an undifferentiated realm, a shifting sea of open questions - about identity, and mortality, and time - examining the transient nature of her place, our place, in the world and the cosmos.
It is in fact the open-ended nature of Baiz's questions that gives so much potency to the objects she makes. They are nuanced and deeply felt questions, posed as material in the form of a body - this very body - a physical presence invested with, and inhabited by consciousness. They do not anticipate answers, or profess an ideology, but float in our imagination like a lotus on a pond.