Like an overgrown Cinderella, a woman in a girlish puff-sleeved dress sweeps up the detritus of contemporary homelife: Coke cans, wine bottles, shoes. Her horror-stricken face, in this watercolour painting (Stuck in Gens and Affection, 2019), is an unmistakable quotation from fellow Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose aesthetic Vanessa Baird frequently borrows as a shorthand for existential despair. A recent Baird series, the ironically titled There’s no place like home (2019–20), and a number of small works on paper made during the COVID-19 pandemic chronicle the endlessness of domestic demands; meanwhile her kids glue themselves to their phones and her ancient mother lies bedridden. The works turn Baird’s world into a nightmarish fairytale, in which she herself is the protagonist, middle-aged and exhausted by her responsibilities.
As the exhibition title indicates, the stories Baird creates have neither a beginning nor an end but instead represent a continuous oppressive present from which there is no magical escape.
If Baird can’t escape her burdens, she can at least take out her revenge in art, often with grotesque humour. In a particularly vicious example, Love you to the stars and back (2020), Baird celebrates the mother-daughter bond by depicting a woman farting over a cowering elderly woman. Baird is equally unsentimental about herself. A suite of watercolour self-portraits acts as a visual diary of the harrowing side effects of the medication she takes for a chronic condition: swelling, pain, dissolution. This sense of dissolution is carried over to a vast Hokusai-inspired seascape that wraps across two gallery walls, a watery hell in which drowning figures swirl among the waves and flotsam.
Perhaps it is because I saw the exhibition alone (due to COVID-19 restrictions, the show hasn’t opened to the public) or because I am a middle-aged mother, but in some works I felt as if Baird were looking directly at me, entreating a sense of complicity. In Living with teenagers (2019), she stares, hollow-eyed, out of the picture, while in the background her teenagers flaunt their seminaked sexuality. Baird’s T-shirt sports Picasso’s sensual portrait of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, The Dream (1932), poignantly highlighting the contrast between the seemingly inexhaustible artistic virility of the male artist and society’s denigration of older women artists’ sexuality.
Vanessa Baird: If ever there were an end to a story that had no beginning at Drawing Room, London, 1 March – 9 May
First published in the May 2021 issue of ArtReview