Mowry Baden’s Artistic Life of Sculpting, Teaching, and Perspective

Wednesday 06th, March 2019 / 10:54
By Lauren Edwards

Photo by Michael Honer

Where: Vancouver Art Gallery
When: March 9-June 9

“Have you ever danced with a mop bucket?” asks sculptor Mowry (pronounced “Maury”) Baden over the phone. It’s a question I’ve never heard in my entire life.

“I have and many people have,” he says. “You use a standard mop bucket – the kind that janitors use with wheels. You grab the mop by its handle while it’s in the bucket and you can dance with it, like a partner.”

The award-winning artist is explaining the origins of his piece Trisector, which contains three mop buckets, that was created after winning the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2014.

Baden’s artistic portfolio is decorated with awards including the 2006 Governor General’s Award. He has taught on university campuses in California and BC for over 40 years. The most important lesson the 83-year-old has learned over his long academic career is to listen to his students, some of which grew up to be his friends and become artists as well.

“More than a handful have grown up to have careers that put my puny efforts in the shade,” says Baden. “I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to work with them when they were young.”

The artist’s influences growing up were “most significantly the whole constructivist production of mostly Russian and some European artists at the turn of the 20th century. As a general influence, that’s where one would look to find the kind of art language that I have adopted. I put [the art language] to purposes that would be unlikely to find of interest but the methodology, the management of materials, technical structural problems, that need to be solved in order to do what I do, come largely from the constructivist innovations.”

In his intricate installations and public structures, Baden utilizes everyday found objects, putting a new perspective on common things one’s eyes usually glaze over.

“There has to be some familiar invitation to engage and interact with the work,” he explains. “The mop bucket is a good example. Other sculptures in the show – one is called Seatbelts – use objects from commonplace utilitarian moments in life that are so familiar that the viewer knows exactly what to do and how to engage. It sends the viewer a signal swiftly so there’s the least amount of hesitation on the viewer’s part and they know how to get involved physically.”

The elements of his work silhouette experiences in day-to-day life, a culmination of something happening “in the course of a day that triggers an unexpected response.”

“I think right away, ‘Ah, there’s a sculpture’ that can be enlarged, refined, sharpened, given precision, and set in a public space,” says Baden. “The public realm is so different than a gallery, almost completely separate worlds. In the public world, people don’t make a special effort to go to see a work of art. They have business there, have to go shopping or meet a friend… they’re busy moving from point to point and if they’re lucky, their journey might include a work of art.”

Public art, he insists, “scarcely gets any attention at all. Why? Because it only happens peripherally.”

Baden’s work, spanning from the 1960s to present day, will be shown in an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June. The exhibit is “not like a retrospective, but it does touch on a long career,” explains Baden. “It’ll give visitors a pretty good idea of what my studio production has been like.”

The viewer’s perceptual psychology will be fully engaged in interactive, intricate pieces like Hopper Tedder and Prone Gyres, which requires a person to lay down on their stomach and manoeuvre themselves with their hands. Prone Gyres is “a sculpture that is less frock with unfortunate complexities,” says Baden. Both of those installations, as well as Trisector, will be shown at the VAG.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Baden hopes “they’ll find something inside themselves they didn’t know that was there.”

Mowry Baden’s work is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from March 9-June 9.

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