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Stranger in a Strange Landscape 

I once read a novel, God's Fires by Patricia Anthony, about a spaceship that fell to earth in medieval Portugal. In an oddly familiar twist, a feeble-minded figurehead occupied the highest office in the land, and the real decisions were made by corrupt and ruthlessly self-righteous inquisitors. Then as now, strange and portentous events were the order of the day, and then as now, the just were often overruled by the venal, so it ends rather tragically. I don't know if Nancy Baker, whose colorfully surreal paintings are on view at Heriard Cimino, ever read the novel, but her work exudes a similarly cataclysmic sensibility with overtones of time travel.

Baker is based in Raleigh, N.C., which is rather far from medieval Europe, but her painting style recalls, if not Inquisition-era Portugal then at least the Book of Hours of Duke de Berry, a lushly evocative series of 15th century allegorical landscapes. Unlike Anthony's subtly deft touch with extraterrestrial phenomena, Baker's flying saucers and occasional rockets are jarring invaders that suggest ballistic emissaries from pop culture, maybe the archives of Marvel or DC comics. This pop touch provides an ironic twist to paintings that might otherwise recall the delicately dreamy canvasses of Julie Heffernan, or occasionally even our own Michael Willmon or Jacqueline Bishop, if only in certain instances. Other displaced personas include a not-so-friendly Casper-like ghost and an occasional lost cowboy popping up almost randomly amid richly hued medieval landscapes.

Creation is a colorful pastoral scene reminiscent of the Book of Hours with its starry twilight sky, swooping humming birds and overall ambience that might be bucolic but for the flying saucer on the horizon. What gives? Although the Church of Scientology claims humanity is descended from space aliens, let's leave Tom Cruise to explain that one and move on to postmodern theory, which sometimes sees the visual world as a vast collage of accumulated images cutting across time and space. In fact, quantum physics and Buddhist-Hindu metaphysics similarly regard time as a mental construct. Be that as it may, we don't really know what Baker was thinking here, but it's an interesting image.

Further philosophical peregrinations appear in Pubic Wars, a real potboiler of an action/adventure painting of a medieval citadel being stormed by an invading army. Very elaborately detailed and meticulously painted, it features lots of pillage, plunder and presumably rape, not to mention flying saucers and cruise missiles, details that viewers will find either wonderfully whimsical or distractingly disjointed. But it's an impressive piece of work nonetheless, very much in the high-craft visionary surrealism tradition that is especially evident among Louisiana artists. And I want to say Baker's canvasses are beautifully painted because most of them are even if their juxtapositions can seem jarring. Consequently, my favorite was Avatar, an abstract psychedelic composition in which a medieval castle was just one piece of a larger puzzle of wavy-gravy geometry, an electric paisley and calico mosaic radiating out from a serenely smiling Hindu diva of some sort. Hey, if you're going to get wild and crazy, you might as well go all the way! Even so, Baker provides us with some bravura midsummer dreams in paint on canvas.

At Cole Pratt, the abstract oil paintings of Aaron Collier appear to have nothing in common with Nancy Baker until you notice that he too is from North Carolina, although he now lives here and teaches at Tulane. His undulating swirls of color suggest primordial energy in search of form and structure, more successfully in some canvases than in others. It's rather musical as Peter Max-ish chromatic blends lurch toward ghostly echoes of Kandinsky as they all meander into rhapsodic flourishes that can appear unsure where they're going yet seem to have fun getting there. All in all, it is interesting if still a tad tentative, or perhaps transitional, work. It is also only the latest of many recent local shows by North Carolinians, and while it's great that they fit in so well, that might not be the most reassuring omen for North Carolina.

click to enlarge In paintings such as Creation, Nancy Baker blends - medievalism and comic book imagery in ways that may - seem either disjointed or wonderfully whimsical.
  • In paintings such as Creation, Nancy Baker blends medievalism and comic book imagery in ways that may seem either disjointed or wonderfully whimsical.
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