NatWest Art Prize, Lothbury Gallery 1998

NatWest Art Prize 1998 Lothbury Gallery, London Sue Arrowsmith/Alexandra Baraitser/Sybille Berger/Alan Brooks/Luke Caulfield/Tacita Dean/Jeff Gibbons/Alexis Harding/Nicky Hoberman/Callum Innes/Jason Martin


British School at Rome, Abbey Scholar in Painting 1997

NatWest Art Prize catalogue essay 1998 "Alexandra Baraitser's time as Abbey Scholar in Painting at the British School at Rome acted as a catalyst for a new series of paintings. These works were directly influenced by the things which caught her attention there - fountains, ruins, gardens, ancient frescoes and Roman sculptures. The images cling to the bottom of the canvas, in a manner which recalls the work of the American painter, Philip Guston. They explore the relationship between the viewer and the tip of an object or form, in other words the point with which we initially communicate."

I obsess over chairs – especially design classics. My starting point is photographs of pieces from Le Corbusier to Conran, cherry-picked from the glossies, books and catalogues, for their purity and timelessness. I remake these through a process of drawing and painting - recontextualising them as uncompromising throne-like images. Designs are chosen for their beauty and their distinctive characteristics, and photographs of the subjects are faithfully transcribed resulting in paintings that are sculptural and hyperreal. Each form I choose to paint has a special significance and it makes for a powerful statement. For example the pregnant image of an empty chair leads the viewer to ask questions and make judgements about taste, wealth and social standing.

Enjoy the Silence, Rachael Thomas (now Head of Exhibitions, Irish Museum of Modern Art) . Thomas was a mentor in 2002 and wrote the essay for the exhibition catalogue for Mobilia at Hirschl Contemporary Art:
Silence. The mere mention of the word connotes a religious, hushed reverence. But the simplicity of silence by its very absence of sound is profoundly deceptive: it evokes manifold articulations. And, perhaps in the same way, the inanimate surface of a canvas can convey a similar authority. The painted canvas has the power to connect with our physical and unconscious memory; its stillness and memory resonates with us, and provokes an initiation of remembrance of personal experiences and memories. Yet in light of new technological developments such as video, digital, and multi-media, post-modern art critics – such as Arthur Danto – have hailed the death of painting and art history. They argue that the immediacy of current technologies have eclipsed and brushed painting aside. Yve-Alain Bois explains, in his 'modernist painting', that there has always been a concern with the end of painting. In fact, there has always been a renewed interest in painting, as painting endures and conveys new meanings within the context of art in contemporary life.

The title of this exhibition Mobilia is derived from the 60s Danish Magazine of the same name; it is also Italian for 'furniture'. The magazine featured classic works by designers such as Gjerlov Knudsen and Steen Ostergaard. The subject of furniture, in this case a series of chair paintings by Alexandra Baraitser, is both familiar and strange, both domestic and institutional. Here, Baraitser appears to be moving away from the tongue-in-cheek images of football shirts of her earlier work to darker, more sophisticated images of chairs and sofas that imply implicit subtexts. As a piece of furniture, a chair is recognisable for its function and form. Yet Baraitser's seats subvert this familiarity by portraying them as austere, throne-like and uncompromising, which in turn offers an alternative reality. The undercurrents in these representations of reality relate to our accepted memory of the object's functional use, where lurk hidden emotional depths obscurred by everyday life. This subversion of utilitarian objects can be viewed with Marcel Duchamp's legacy in mind. His early 'ready-mades' are mass-produced objects he took from everyday life, re-interpreted their function as objects and presented them as works of art. Baraitser delves deeper into the controlled intensity of the object; her references touch on diverse sources such as styalised American pop art of the 80s (for example the work of Alex Katz) and the intensity of still-life studies by Jan Vermeer.

'There is a power concealed in everyday life's apparent banality, a depth beneath its triviality, something extraordinary in its very ordinariness'. Here, the philosopher Henri Lefevre succinctly informs the rationale behind the Mobilia exhibition. All the series of chairs have a deeper and more personal meaning than their everyday associations might otherwise suggest. Through the ordinary we recognise the familiar. Nostalgia is a yearning for past circumstances or past memories; it is the attachment of the intangible past to real commonplace objects. Our personal histories are perhaps deposited with commodities. Even those that are mass – produced on a production line are, over time, attached with deep sentiments. Marcel Proust comments how chance encounters with objects evoke certain memories. Baraitser's paintings skillfully connect with the physical memory of spaces and allow us to respond. The experience of looking at a painting and then accomodating it to our own personal histories is cleverly manipulated by her series of chairs as each one is individual. As subject to this still-life, the chair renders the work more than simply an illustration. Baraitser's highly sculptural depictions of chairs are rigourously packed like portraits. Far from being silent muted figures the chairs speak loudly, and command presence. Detail is another device explored by Baraitser ; she has an obsessive need to record the perfect image od a chair. Similarly, the British-based painter, Lisa Milroy, alludes to the power of contemporary still life to have resemblance and remonstrance.

Furniture exploits a functionalist genericism, a grounding point from which the hairpin bends of style can be measured. The chairs themselves are stylish and specifically chosen from an array of sources from glossy lifestyle magazines to archive books. All adopt a classic modernist design from Le Corbusier to Conran, and are deliberately chosen for their traditional timeless seduction. These 'larger – than – life' paintings signal a new direction, as Baraitser becomes more dependent on the photographic source. She slavishly captures the light in the photograph as it is trapped and beautifully frozen on the canvas. The design and function of furniture is tailored to the huan body. But, by the very absence of human presence in all of Alexandra Baraitser's chairs, they begin to entice us with the promise of our own personal narritive. The paintings long to be occupied. Would we consider sitting on one of her unoccupied seats? Baraitser's seats stand by themselves in their self-contained world; they are unsettling, their role as furniture, uncertain. Her series of chairs for the Mobilia exhibition fluctuate; they are for ever metamorphosing between portrait, sculpture and furniture.

In a society that believes 'seeing is believing', we are inescapably bound to visual imagery. Endless do-it-yourself programmes such as 'Home Front' allude that we are able to find happiness and perfection in an ideal sofa or a roll of wallpaper. Alexandra Baraitser's highly controlled paintings are iconic; they acknowledge our desire for unattainable perfection.

Her paintings are concerned with the narritives and appreciation of personal human desire. As we enjoy the silence of these paintings, we re-encounter everyday life and are reminded of our daily lives and their endless possibilities.”

The Independent on Sunday, 25th August 2002 (Fiona Rattray):
As my fellow sufferers will tell you, it's not easy being different. Some people sympathise. Others think you're mad. But getting them to understand, to share that passion (however deviant) is hard. Which is why it's a pleasure to find someone who knows how you feel, someone who isn't afraid to dabble, someone who can share your enthusiasm. Someone like Alexandra Baraitser. Baraitser is an artist – and the reason why the subject of this week's column is looking more gorgeous than ever. You se this picture of the Spanish chair is not a photograph, it's a painting. Now in my opinion many a fine chair portrait has been ruined by the artist's insistence on having someone sitting on it. Baraitser shows herself to be a cut above those losers by going straight for the interesting bit. Borge Morgensen's 1959 Spanish Chair is a bit of classic with a chunky hide back and seat and wide oak arms. The Danish designer (1914 – 72, above) based it on a Spanish army-commander's chair, which is funny because we think of Scandinavia design as so distinctive and influential that we forget they had outside influences too. You can still buy it new. It's very in right now. Though I'm sure that's not what attracted Baraitser. She's an artist after all. This work, called 'Inovation Model No 226' is one of a series of paintings of chairs from Baraitser's forthcoming exhibition, Mobilia. What's more it's for sale (£3,500). Just think, for less than £4,500 , you could have the pair. Then you could sit in the chair while looking at the painting. Or stand in front of the painting, while looking at the chair. Or...OK, Ok, I'll stop now.”

Essay by Eva Bensasson for the catalogue The Future Past March 2007 at Mark Jason Gallery:
"Alexandra Baraitser's paintings pay homage to some of the greatest designs of the twentieth century. Visions of the future pertain to history, firmly rooted in the time-specific aspirations of the societies and cultures that create them. Yet the utopian dream that characterised twentieth century Modernism has left a vision so compelling that the revolutionary designs of the fifty years ago still inform the popular imagination today. Baraitser's paintings highlight the contradictions of the current condition of modern furniture, still denoting 'the new' while simultaneously acting as 'design classics'; embodying socialist thought while serving as symbols of social status. The relationship of painting to these subjects is itself highly relevant in Baraitser's work. Using paint she labours to represent the patina and tone of objects which were designed in order to be mass produced. Through her dedication to each painting she emphasises the fetishistic qualities that these objects have aquired. Baraitser's paintings are based on photographs, this imbues them with a quality at once slighlty distant and , through the human touch, particularly individual. Chairs featured throughout the history of western art, as props for human subjects, from thrones to humble stools. Picking up this legacy Baraitser's chair paintings suggest absence, allowing the viewer to imagine potential sitters. The ceiling lights and chairs of Baraitser's paintings live in similar environments to those of paintings themselves: galleries, homes and public spaces. This proximity to the subjects they portray creats a gestalt shift for the viewer, from looking into the painting at the subject, to looking at the painting as a particularly crafted object in itself – in a room containing chairs and lamps.Baraitser's most recent works have focused on the textile designs of Maija Isola (1927-2001) who worked for the Finnish company Marimekko. Her poppy flower designs, with their big graphic patterns in bright colours, became icons of the sixties. As with Modernist furniture, these designs are still popular today. By painting them, Baraitser invites discussion of the relationship between 'high art' abstraction and textile design.”

Dr Astrid Wootton, The Design Centre - Tasmania, 30th March 2005:
“The exceptional solo exhibition from emerging British artist Alexandra Baraitser calls into question the nature of design and the conflict-ridden relationship between aesthetics and practicality.”

Jane Oriel, The Big Issue (Wales), July 15th-21st 2002:
“As images, the viewer affords them the same treatment as classic portraits of nobility... Baraitser's use of fluid brush strokes with emphatic light and shade creates active subtexts.”

Ria Higgins, Sunday Times Magazine, June 6th 1999:
'“It's all about identity,” says Alexandra Baraitser, the 27-year-old artist behind a series of oil paintings inspired by football shirts. “In so many situations, you either feel you're a part of something or you don't. Football culture is such a great example, because even the shirt is  this hugely passionate statement; it's like wearing a flag.” Baraitser, [prize winner] in last  year's NatWest Art Prize, has chosen many familiar team colours, but to stamp her own identity on such a powerful cultural icon, she has distorted the shapes of the shirts and painted them onto canvases minus the players.'

Richard Cork, The Times, 17th June 1998:
“Her large, dream-like images take Roman ruins, carvings and fountains as their starting point. But they are only a springboard for glistening, fruit-like images that surge up, inexplicably, from the base of the canvas.”

Financial Times, 17th March 2007:
“Her work revisits design classics, both modern and contemporary, and forces us to look at them again in a new way. While design often draws on the influence of art, it is rarer to see art taking its inspiration from design.”

Genevieve Francon in the Independent on Sunday, 24th May 1998:
“For there is another tradition of Young British Artists which is quieter, more thoughtful, and an awful lot more pleasing to look at: more painterly, in a word....The Nat West Art Prize is the most lucrative art award there is...awarded to an artist in recognition of an outstanding group of five is impossible to overestimate the importance of such awards to the working artist.”