It’s a scorcher of a day when I visit Kate Baker at her studio in Sydney; light illuminates her sizeable space and I can see the breadth of her practice all around: sketches, large machinery, a shelf filled with casts of body parts, a section of leaning silkscreens, a computer and two large tables down the middle. ‘Be careful, that’s really sharp’, she warns as I pass by a new delivery of glass sheets.
Capturing the intangible has been a running theme throughout Baker’s work and she ruminates on the complexities of lived experiences as a kind of spirituality. ‘We live as if we live forever but we really don’t and when we’re gone, we really are gone. And you can hypothesise about what happens after death but it’s exactly that, it’s a hypothesis,’ Kate articulates. It’s clear that these beliefs are deeply rooted in how she sees the world, not just in her art. Baker cites her mother’s passing when she was young as a catalyst for this contemplation; her works evoke fleeting suggestions of memories and intimacy.
Baker began her art practice with photography, printmaking and sculpture but is now best known for her mastery of glass; her work Within Matter #2 (2020) was just recently exhibited in ‘New Glass Now’ at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Baker’s practice with glass is not the fragile, decorative kind that we think of in our daily lives, the kind that is valued for its clarity. Her works feature foggy whisps of people and scrawling textures, layers of iridescent forms that escape definition.
The elusive and reflective nature of glass speaks to Baker’s conceptual focus well; she explores the temporal nature of mortality, of memories and history co-existing with our physical forms. The title of her show ‘Sublimate’ captures this essence accurately; the scientific word refers to the transformation of a substance directly from a solid to gas, bypassing the liquid form. This occurs in volcanoes during eruption and, more commonly, with dry ice.
‘Sublimate’ features three bodies of work, one being of the same title as the exhibition. For this, Baker worked with a photo she took of her son. Her practice often begins with photography, however, she explains ‘I don’t really see myself as a photographer… I do a lot of work on the images in post. Printing, screen printing and etching so the image is formed purely in the texture of the glass.’ Baker also works with mirror, stainless steel and aluminium – ‘it’s a lot of different materials coming together to tell a story.’ She shows me the aforementioned work in progress: the soft and hazy shapes look ephemeral, like they could easily float away from the glass and disappear into thin air.
The most expansive work in the show is the large hanging installation Pulse (2019), consisting of 100 curved glass forms suspended from the ceiling through which a projection of a woman is visible. ‘There’s more to glass than being a flat panel,’ expresses Baker, ‘when you start projecting on glass, the easiest thing you can do is drown it out. The glass ceases to have meaning and it’s just a screen for your video work. Whereas I really want to push the video back and get that nuance between how the glass is interrelating with the moving image and light.’
Baker realised that the emotional range she wanted in the video could not be captured by a model, so she looked to one of her students, the Australian actor Leeanna Walsman. With the assistance of the creative studio doeanddoe, Walsman was captured performing three emotional spaces, which rise and fall before reaching a crescendo. The video was layered with footage of water which, when projected onto the glass, tricks the viewer into looking for a pool of liquid at its base. The work is ephemeral and visceral at the same time.
‘Sublimate’ represents new directions that Baker is undertaking in her practice with 3D installations and video. She muses on her plans for the future ‘looking into how pate de verre or cast glass or kiln formed glass might interrelate with a projected moving image is a very underexplored area and I think there’s a lot to be discovered that hasn’t happened yet in terms of the glass movement. So I’m really excited about just getting my teeth in that.’
Vanessa Low is a Sydney-based art writer, graphic designer and photographer.
6 February to 19 March 2020