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An Interview With Carl Baratta

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 30, 2009 4:20PM

carlbaratta.jpg Chicago artist Carl Baratta has earned a full trick-or-treat bag of accolades and positive reviews for his artwork, and we think it's well deserved — especially for his masterful use of color, which stays with the viewer long afterward. Composition-wise, the word "undulate" often applies to many of his works: Trees sway, water flows, the earth winds and curves; a subtle, unironic sense of humor is also present. Recently, Baratta has been playing carpenter as he helps Hammond, Indiana artist Mike Kaysen turn a space into Side Car, a new gallery. Recently he took a break from using power tools to talk to us.

Chicagoist: I always run into you at Western Exhibitions. What is your relationship to the gallery?

Carl Baratta:
Western Exhibitions represents me. I have a lot of friends I've met through the gallery. The director, Scott Speh, has a great program. Plus, they have free beer at the openings.

C: How did you become an artist?

I've been drawing and painting since I was two years old. Right around that time, I covered everything and myself in Vaseline. It took me a long time, and I was very proud of the whole thing, so I guess you could say I was into body art back then.

C: Was your family supportive of your creativity?

CB: My folks have always been super-supportive, which has helped tremendously. After high school, I lived in a walk-in type basement that was flooded with water and I made a living waiting tables. When I rose from the stagnant pool, I called my home and applied to Tyler [School of Art] in Philly; my entire family was there for me. I think they were mostly happy I had returned to the world of people and forsook my life as an amphibian food server.

C: About your art, you've said, "When each work is looked at in its entirety, it adds up to a simple conclusion: something is wrong." What does this mean?

I'm hard pressed to believe anything, so when I say something about how wrong everything is, I'm talking in terms of narrative. The universe is an unknowable, crazy thing. It's cold, and it's dark, and when you're out in it no one can hear you scream. Again, story-wise I think that makes things much more interesting than having everything be readily understood and quantifiable.

It's the difference between Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov novels. Asimov's heroes know math and Kung-Fu and drink grassy shakes. They rely on science to save the day, and everything wraps up tidily. Dick's heroes get crumbled into goo under the pressure of an enormous cosmic thumb. Usually his books read as a travelogue of a person's disintegration into madness. I want that feeling in my paintings. While 'madness' and 'wrongness' maybe aren't synonymous with each other, I try and connect the two if I can.

C: You call your color palettes "violent." What's that all about?

You have to set up a norm and then break it. One example is you lay down slow, methodical marks over and over until it represents a system; it becomes 'normal.' Then, right at the end, before the painting is ready to ship, you throw in some lurid nasty marks over top to damage the calm of the pre-existing system. It's a violent disruption. Or it can be, if you think about it the right way.

C: Where do you derive inspiration for your subjects and color schemes?

Sometimes I'll lift a color palette from a painting I really love and then mix another color palette that runs alongside the initial one. In this example, I use what's in front of me and my pure love of color theory. I'll also mix colors that run against the initial scheme to jolt the balanced look of the palette. Other times, I just start piling up colors and look at it in terms of adjusting the overall light and mood of the piece.

As far as subject matter goes, everything is mish-mashed pieces of all sorts of things I look at and think will work well in a narrative setting. When a piece really works, the mood, the lighting, narrative and everything else is working together evenly.

C: You use a variety of media — egg tempera, clay, wood, etc. How do you decide which media to use for a particular piece? Which is your favorite?

Clay, wood, and gesso are only being used to support the paint. I used to paint in oil, but then I switched to water-based media because many of the sources I am drawing from are in water-based mediums and I want to be as close to the sources as possible. Indian miniatures are a good example.

Recently I switched to making my own egg tempera out of powdered pigments and egg yolk and water. Once I apply it, and let it dry, I can build up translucent layers. Before that I used gauche and watercolor. They re-wet too easily, so I couldn't layer. If I wanted a green, I had to lay it down and leave it. With tempera, I can achieve green by layering yellow over blue. This makes the spaces in the paintings more atmospheric. Egg tempera is more versatile and lets me try different types of marks. It's a perfect medium for using all of the tricks I picked up over the years in oil, and for all the newer things I've learned by using water. I love it!

C: Tell us about Enkidu Publications. What does it publish?

Isak Applin and I make collaborative prints. We've worked together for just over six years, and collaboration just seemed natural. When collaborating, we end up picking up drawing moves from each other and then take them back to our paintings. Recently we made enough money from our last project to fund our next project, which will be a series of landscape woodcuts. We might make the series into handmade books. We'll see.

C: Why Enkidu?

CB: Enkidu is from the Epic of Gilgamesh. He was Gilgamesh's sidekick and best friend. Basically, Enkidu lived in the woods, slept in caves and hunted with the woodland animals. One evening, Gilgamesh dreamed that Enkidu should join him in a quest. So he sent a sex priestess out to Enkidu's cave to seduce him and lure him back to Gilgamesh's city. It worked. After seven days of screwing, Enkidu emerged from the cave as a full-grown man. All his woodland buddies cried at his transformation. Isak and I both love that story, and since our prints have themes of being a hermit out in the wilderness it seemed appropriate.

C: What are you working on right now, and do you have a show lined up?

I was in two Chicago group shows this past summer. There's a couple of other show-related things coming up, maybe, but I want to wait and see how things pan out before I say much more.

In 2011, I'll have another solo show at Western. Meanwhile, I'm curating shows, and working like mad in my studio. I have a five-by-ten-foot diptych I'm fixing to work on very soon, if it doesn't shit the bed on me. Light a candle.

River, Sky, Mountain! Mountain!, water-based media on paper by Carl Baratta