Mowry Baden: The Great One
“Teaching is listening,” says the sculptor Mowry Baden over the phone from his studio located just outside Victoria. “It starts with the student’s vision, however flawed and immature. Somewhere in that vision is the pathway to a deeper and more complex expression.”
Until his retirement in 1997, Baden spent more than 30 years in the classroom. He taught first in California, where he was born and raised, then in Vancouver and, finally, in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Victoria, where he worked for 22 years with colleague Roland Brener (who died in March 2006). Baden’s own work incorporates elements from perceptual psychology, science and phenomenology. The viewer interacts with sculpture that provokes, in Baden’s term, “a perceptual crisis.” A winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Mowry Baden is considered a pioneer of body art.
If a student “weighs-in light,” he explains in a ruminative yet precise voice, “for example, coming in with an idea framed on an anime video that doesn’t come close to hitting bedrock”—he talks with the student, trying to guide her to “touch bottom.” What cannot be taught is: “Patience, perseverance and curiosity, because these features are in the bloodstream of the creature that stands in front of you—or not. If they can’t hold focus, you can’t implant it.”
Did his teaching style gradually change?
“I got old. The fire of recognition between a young teacher and student gets pretty much extinguished over time.” What replaces the fire is “an amazing catalogue of things that work and don’t work in teaching.” And always, he avers—“some students have so much talent and urgency that you fall into their slipstream.”
Baden’s architect father, Frank, was his main teacher and his biggest influence. Bipolar, energetic and relentlessly curious, the man could build anything. He would enter his son’s room in the morning and proclaim “You’re sick today.” The two would play hooky and spend hours building a model airplane. Observing his son’s efforts, his father would let Baden “carry on with my bungled experimentation with little interference.”
According to Barbara Fischer, chief curator and executive director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto, “the Canadian art world can be a tough and dry place for artists. Even if you stand on your head here, no one notices.” And she should know. As an aspiring artist in 1978, newly emigrated from Germany, Fischer headed out to the University of Victoria. She soaked up Baden’s teachings. From that point on, “the world of art looked different.” A tight-knit group of students, “a hairball of kids,” would pile into Baden’s truck and “trip around to galleries in Vancouver or visit his studio. He was full of stories about the Californian artists and we got to meet many of them.”
The students “excitedly followed him as he made us part of the world he’d already built. Whatever he said was a fender-bender, always playing with our perceptions.” Sometimes, this was painful. “When work bored him, he’d undermine you, cut away the foundations on which you’d based the piece.” As a curator, Fischer has exhibited Baden twice. “He’s by far one of the most challenging artists in the country. Uncompromising.”
Sculptor Kim Adams, Fischer’s partner, first came to the University of Victoria as a mature student back in 1975, having already trained at three art schools. This training upheld a traditional mode of producing art that Adams felt was somehow wrong, but he doubted this instinct, wondering, “what’s wrong with my wrong?” Baden introduced him to a conceptual way of thinking, using offbeat exercises. Adams’ favourite: “We were to bring in an old chair, take it apart and reassemble it as something else. Then we made a careful assembly drawing so someone else could build the same thing.” In Adams’ work since graduating, he finds things in the world and drags them back to the studio. “Mowry taught us that,” he explains. “You could drag a dead dog into that classroom and talk about it.” Years later, Adams hauled a fishing hut into an art gallery. “Mowry is the most important sculptor in Canada,” he says, adding, “it’s a puzzlement that his work doesn’t have more recognition.”
I meet Benjamin Diaz in his light-filled gallery in downtown Toronto. Diaz Contemporary is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary and its proprietor recalls how he came to exhibit Baden and several of Baden’s former students. “Roland [Brener] was standing here, got on his cellphone, and told Mowry his sculpture would look great in this space.” Intrigued by these artists living “secluded in Victoria,” Diaz flew out to visit their studios. “I found it interesting and strange that Mowry, a senior artist of great accomplishment and influence, had no representation. Of course, his work is challenging for a commercial gallery. People are still trying to figure him out.”
Baden insists that “if you don’t have an irresolvable problem to work on by age 25, you’re in trouble.” There has to be a reason to go into the studio every day. Even when snowed under by administrative duties, Baden would get up at five a.m. and “go right into the studio, no matter how cold it was, and work for a couple of hours, get something done.”
Was it possible to turn off departmental concerns?
“Of course not; the contamination is severe.”
Robert Youds, a 1978 University of Victoria graduate, describes his own work as “falling between painting and sculpture.” Speaking from his Victoria home, Youds suggests that “those of us who worked with Roland and Mowry are a kind of tribe that still echoes outward.”
As a professor at the University of Victoria, Youds taught alongside Baden and Brener for a decade. According to Youds, Baden was not just a teacher giving a lesson: “It was much deeper and more philosophical; he would keep an eye on what students were doing and offer a cryptic response. You never knew if it was in support or a put-down; you had to figure it out.”
Youds laments that universities have “changed enormously. Instructors work longer and harder and are more accountable. Roland and Mowry pushed the frontier of progressive practice; in this pluralistic time, it’s harder to define the cutting edge of a teaching/learning environment.”
Gallerist David Winter speaks to me from his loft in Brooklyn. Now 55, he lived with Baden for a year after high school and studied with him informally.
“He was dismissive of high art,” Winter remembers. “This was liberating. Most students are given the humanist route, Picasso, Matisse, Henry Moore—but Mowry was reacting against all this, and he’d show you the opposite: a Donald Judd piece or Robert Smithson.”
Winter tagged along with Baden’s university class when they visited a garbage dump to watch recycling machines at work. “He taught art, but not through art,” Winter says. In his own gallery, Winter Works on Paper, “I go outside art to find art, as Mowry taught. I find things that resonate with art history, though they weren’t made to be art at the time, like a police-evidence photograph or a snapshot.”
It was South African–born sculptor Roland Brener who brought Baden to the University of Victoria back in 1975. Educated at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art under the influence of Anthony Caro, Brener made work that was at first formalist rather than participatory. The two men, as friends and colleagues, influenced each other. Curator Willard Holmes has said that “Mowry put a lived sense of space into Roland’s work, which had always been very abstract, and Roland’s bricolage allowed Mowry to incorporate the real world.” Brener introduced Baden to the rigorous critique method he had learned at St. Martin’s. These critique sessions tested student work, particularly pieces that involved the viewer’s senses. Students had to stand their ground.
Toronto-based sculptor James Carl attended the University of Victoria in the early 1980s, working mainly with Roland Brener. “This meant working with Mowry too. He had some kind of radar situation where you knew he was not only watching but interested.” Both Baden and Brener “had a specific kind of gravity about them, and they worked on their own stuff in the studio at school. That was the best lesson you could get, watching those guys make decisions in real-time.” Having worked as a Studio Art professor at the University of Guelph since 1999, Carl says wryly, “I took some good ideas from Mowry, and I realized a while ago that he had taken some from me, too.”
Jessica Stockholder, an internationally renowned sculptor and installation artist who is now the director of Graduate Studies in Sculpture at Yale, attended the University of Victoria Department of Visual Arts in the early 1980s. “Mowry teaches what he likes,” she tells me from her home in New Haven.
“He addresses what he’s interested in and ignores what he doesn’t care about. This sets up areas of taboo, where one knows certain things are not part of the conversation.” She waits a beat and adds, “he’s the best teacher I’ve had.”
As his student, Stockholder felt understood, though this was not an easy process. She remembers making a painting with a flap of canvas hanging over one area, and receiving irritated criticism because something was obscured. She cut holes in the flap. Baden was not amused. She showed him things made of fabric that he found difficult to credit. “‘They have to mean something,’ he insisted, and of course they did mean something, to me.”
When she arrived at Yale to start her MFA, however, she was unfazed by aggressive critiques, because “I felt, in a fundamental way, that my project and way of working had been affirmed by Mowry.” Her own teaching method is more conciliatory. “I try to put myself in their shoes, and I may be a bit wishy-washy as a result. Sometimes I ask myself—what do I care about? I lose track of the edges of what matters to me, and realize that Mowry wouldn’t have lost track, ever.”
Sculptor Christian Giroux, aged 39, recalls his days at the University of Victoria vividly. “There was a huge mythology surrounding the department, how Mowry had taught Chris Burden, Jessica Stockholder and Kim Adams.” Like many students, Giroux arrived knowing nothing about contemporary art. “Whatever expectations you went in with, you were knocked on your ass by the nature of the assignments and critiques. Those who could connect with Mowry passionately took on everything he had to offer.” Giroux was one of those students.
“At some point you were so disoriented you had to decide to follow him, to trust him.” Giroux’s collaborator in sculptural projects, Daniel Young, “still makes fun of my undying devotion to the man.” Giroux recalls how Baden would talk in koans, riddles that some found infuriating. Assignments were never predictable, and they came with “crazy conditions.” Students were asked to make a sculpture that “affected two of your senses, and it had to be strapped to your head.”
“Making art is not a career,” states Baden. “It’s a discipline, something you do every day.” Teaching would bleed into studio work, and this was always the great danger. He calls this phenomenon the “trivialization of your own studio practice.” If a student has a problem, he explains, “you offer simplified advice and find yourself following these simplified classroom strategies inside your own work.”
More than a dozen years have passed since Baden’s retirement, and he sees “a new depth and complexity in my work.” He views his legacy as bringing an American—and specifically Californian—sensibility to Victoria by promoting artists such as Michael Asher, Bruce Nauman and Lewis Baltz, and as “encouraging generations of students to look outside the walls of the art world.”
Giroux concurs with this assessment of Baden’s impact. “He taught us that your work comes from outside; you’re not just expressing your deepest thoughts and emotions. You have an obligation to feed your practice by finding a unique form of research. This is illustrated in his own work.”