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Carol Duncan

Art Historian

Power is the unifying subject in these drawings by Melanie Baker. It is a subject, however, that eludes direct representation. Its presence can be seen in symbols like eagles, or felt in its effects, like the billowing clouds of smoke emitted by coal-fired power plants. One can also see traces of past power in the ruins of once great ancient cities. But most of the drawings in this exhibition locate power in the bodies of men–emperors, a pope, presidents, senators. Baker makes explicit the gendered social structures that empower these men; The Emperor's Detail and Senator's Lap are literally phallocentric compositions.

The world represented here is... a series of fleeting moments in a fluid, moving field of ominous darkness.
— Carol Duncan

The history of art abounds with portraits and statues of great and famous men. They sit on horses as commanders of armies, grasp scepters that symbolize their rule, display laws that testify to their wise governance (for example, Davies Napoleon in his Study). Baker uses none of these conventions. Her headless and faceless figures are not portraits at all, even when they borrow from actual portraits. Instead, Baker represents them as generic men of power, their luxurious suits and expensive ties, ruffled shirtfronts and ceremonial armor more telling than their faces.

Perhaps the most striking features of these drawings—the features that most evoke the feeling of power—are their gigantic scale and blackness, an especially deep blackness that seems to stalk these men of power. It is, in Baker's words, "the void that will suck you in," the "abyss" into which misused and corrupted power falls. Above all, it is this blackness that visually commands the drawings' surfaces, engulfs and flattens volumes, and obliterates contours. The world represented here is less a world of objects in space and more a series of fleeting moments in a fluid, moving field of ominous darkness. In this, the fragility of Baker's medium—charcoal dust on unframed paper—perfectly matches the ephemerality of her subject. 

Carol Duncan, Professor Emerita at Ramapo College