The beguiling mystery of Deborah Slabeck Baker’s drawings | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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The beguiling mystery of Deborah Slabeck Baker’s drawings

A new show at Firecat Projects spotlights the quirky and captivating work of an artist known for her embroideries.


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Deborah Slabeck Baker uses simple tools to make oblique art. A show of her recent work at Firecat Projects, "6B," consists of 11 graphite drawings on light brown paper and three embroideries done in black thread on linen. Each piece contains a word or phrase, such as tightrope or union or loop, surrounded by seemingly trivial images, like dancers or statues or a doghouse; each is finished off with an ornamental border reminiscent of raised stage curtains. In the interplay of text, picture, and decoration, the poetry of Baker's craft quietly reveals itself.

Firecat proprietor Stan Klein told me that he'd seen the 65-year-old Baker's embroideries a long time ago at Aron Packer Projects, so he was surprised when she came to hang her show and brought a bunch of large pencil drawings. (In fact the exhibit is titled "6B" in honor of the type of pencil she uses.) Via e-mail, Baker explained that she's been sewing since the age of four but hadn't seriously used pencil and paper for roughly 20 years. She returned to the medium out of a desire to create larger pieces. But whether they're on a smaller scale with needle and thread or a bigger one with graphite, she thinks of all her efforts as drawings.

She starts by making a border, creating a sort of stage, then writes a word or phrase that suggests the imagery that will surround it. There's little premeditation or planning aside from choosing text that's personally meaningful. She doesn't disclose that meaning in any straightforward way but has a knack for picking elements that bounce off each other and vibrate. In Cryptic, for instance, the title is inscribed on a banner that drapes the front of the unfinished pyramid from the U.S. dollar bill—but inside the pyramid are silhouettes of the faces of a man and a woman, viewed in profile, with a heart between them, and outside the air is filled with six-pointed stars.

The composition of these pictures is reminiscent of Odd Fellows banners or old-fashioned tattoos, where the symbols and slogans in the images form a kind of secret language for an exclusive club. But unlike the art of those subcultures, Baker's drawings aren't menacing or secretive—they're warm, intimate, and inclusive.

Baker's often symmetrical drawings are preternaturally calm. In Love, another couple faces each other—a word balloon above his head says "XOX," one above her head "OXO." Their skulls are visible, but the piece doesn't suggest death. Instead, the pair seem serene, as if they expect their love will last them to the grave. Baker's artworks won't bowl you over with explicit messages or obvious virtuosity, but in a simple and quiet way they'll burrow into your subconscious.  v

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