Catalog Essay: Rigoletto's Curse (Seerveld Gallery)

The material for the collages in Rigoletto’s Curse comes from a large stack of record albums Baker discovered in 2011 in a derelict warehouse just before it was demolished. Baker, who has little familiarity with any of the musicians, treats this cultural knowledge like raw material, entropic detritus ready for reimagining and recycling. This requires a certain kind of active resistance of knowledge, a refusal to see things in a certain way; and a loss always accompanies that choice. There’s also a politics associated with this practice; using recycled material in making “impure” abstractions that refuse to live in a void (to paraphrase Smithson) means giving up a certain vision of art’s autonomy from the world and its limited resources. The resulting small collections of images appear to float huddled together on their white squares, suspended like ghosts. At the same time, they ask us to read them formally to discover how each part relates, how a set of lines here echoes a shape there, how perspective and scale disappear and reappear given what’s surrounding a fragment. The final pieces are studies in momentary control and momentary relationships, juxtapositions formed through scraps rescued and affixed on a flawless frame.

Baker refines entropy into form through recycling the albums, making these small relationships on carefully painted and sized wooden panels: a few fragments in conversation with each other, creating temporary clarity out of chaos. Her work is open; it tries, she hopes, to live in the space between established forms and that which is possible, undefined, unformed. “I am in a sense generating my own material history,” she said from her table of fragments, “constantly feeding found and manufactured information back in.” The pieces strike an ethereal but uneasy balance in their pure white boxes, momentarily fixed in time. But how those relationships form is a mystery to me. I can only make sense of them after the fact—baffled as she was making them, I found I could agree when one was finished and another wasn’t. What was that logic that I couldn't name? And why did she choose what she did, grab the material? Alchemy, personality, some kind of instinct? The answer we came to was legwork: the constant everyday practices that polish instinct and allow it to become eventually automatic, seemingly effortless. Fickleness, chance, situation, and the mystery of the process can then all create a system that we later attempt to describe by extrapolating from suggestions in the finished pieces.

How can you frame and talk about the flickers of invention at the beginning of one of the collages, the infinite tiny decisions that are made with each piece, and the internal logic to each one? Verdi’s opera Rigoletto helps provide a metaphorical narrative for describing Mara Baker’s practice—and even those invisible, infinite, sometimes imperceptible choices that make up creative work more generally. Rigoletto tells of the tragic fall of Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester to the debauched Duke of Mantua. Rigoletto constantly acts rashly and self-destructively but, irrationally, he only becomes afraid for his future when someone lays a curse on him. In Act II, Rigoletto runs into a professional assassin; because Rigoletto has just been cursed, he asks the assassin where he lives, “in case I need you.” And so the tragic events are set into motion. Throughout the rest of the opera, Rigoletto lives in constant fear of his curse, when in fact he has put into place the inevitability of his own tragedy. The assassin was in the right place at the right time; another night Rigoletto would have simply passed him in the dark. The curse created itself, or rather, it created a logic in Rigoletto’s mind that he then followed, which lent significance to events that normally wouldn’t have registered. Rigoletto’s curse is his answer to everything that happens. By Act IV, when Rigoletto hires the assassin and brings himself to ruins, everything is framed by the curse for him. But the curse could have been anything. Everything that happened was based off the initial impulse, the succession of individual choices that he made, and the resulting logical rules those choices created.

How does a fragment speak and tell Baker to use it in one of these configurations, and how? Some fragments don’t catch her eye, and she passes them with quick fingers back into the entropic piles in her studio. But some, like Rigoletto’s assassin, are in the right place at the right time. They fit a logic that creates itself. The logic of each of Baker’s assemblages operates like Rigoletto’s curse: begun purely instinctively, it then follows rules it creates as it goes along, until it culminates in a piece whose connections seem inevitable. Rigoletto’s curse organizes everything else that happens in the opera, makes all the events relate for him; without some kind of guide, a fragment, an event, has nothing to anchor it. So we frame, shape, and order our stream of experiences. The world around us offers endless material, endless noise and information, and it’s up to us to filter it and make sense of it. But each small act of creation is an act of mourning as well as alchemy, because material under the influence of entropy can never return to its former self. “Stacks of things I like next to each other,” she wrote to me on a post-it note, above one with the single word “Deterioration.” Baker likes the fuzziness of things, working from chaos and superfluous matter. And so she plucks these small relationships: a few shapes, a few words, a few characters onstage, and a clarity emerges.

Over the summer, she and I talked together about entropy and ruins, about tennis and kinetic grace, and especially the importance of doing enough legwork that you can instinctively cut through the chaos and rely on instinct alone to do your work for you: in a collage, in a collaboration, in a friendship. We talked about vulnerability and romance and ways of interfacing with the world. As Baker made her collages, I explored her stack of albums. In amongst the rubble and the decay of the records and decaying, sticky leaflets, I discovered a recorded performance of Rigoletto. Another day, I would have passed it by, but I was looking for a place to find a metaphor for Baker’s work as she sat, in a sort of diligent trance, nimbly assembling shapes and texture from the detritus. I pulled the sticky pages of the album notes apart and looked for a logic, for something to reuse. Filtration—minimalism for Baker, choosing an awkward and underexplained allegory for me—requires a real faith, to say it in less words, to trust that you can put the right pieces in the right place in a logic that translates, that seems fated.