2005, Digital images on canvas, 152.40 x 152.40 cm (60 x 60 inches) each

The Allegorical Heads of Bonnie Baxter

Christine Unger

THE PRINCIPLE OF COMPLEMENTARITY Some observations can never be made simultaneously. For example, one cannot see an electron as a particle and a wave at the same time.Two different experimental situations are necessary, and they cannot be realized simultaneously. The principle was first formulated by Niels Bohr. (Lefebvre, 1983, p. xxv)

“This is going to be weird,” these are the words of warning or comfort that Bonnie offers to her photographer as they plunge into the first stage of her creative process.While certainly surreal, Bonnie's images are not the product of dream analysis, but rather the product of a process that deliberately makes room for the interference of the waking sub-conscious, the body's memory-consciousness, and the mediation of context. This process allows her to explore subjects that might otherwise be difficult to confront or simply outside of her everyday waking preoccupations.

Preparing for the heads, she makes of herself a palate as clean as possible - stripped of pretense and holding as little presumptive information as possible. Suggestive hair is wrapped in dark cloth (dark to avoid association with clinical whites) that is neither hat nor turban.The body is not portrayed - there is no place for gesture or body language or the dialectic of the male gaze. Colour is kept to a minimum.This stripped down face can now confront the camera.The second process allows Bonnie to interact spontaneously with the contents of her surroundings (from emotional prompts to objects laden with specific memory) - an almost autonomic or automatic performance captured in stills.With 500 quick headshots and hundreds of other images drawn from a library of personal iconography and influence built over more than 30 years or so, she is ready to begin.
If this notion of absolute health were not an abstract category, something which does not strictly exist, we might say that a perfectly healthy man would be no longer a man, but an irrational animal. Irrational, because of the lack of some disease to set a spark to his reason. And this disease which gives us the appetite of knowing for the sole pleasure of knowing, for the delight of tasting of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is a real disease and a tragic one.
Miguel de Unamuno Tragic Sense of Life (Gutenberg E-Book)
Encased in our subjective shells, contained by our personal concerns and critical expectations, it is hard not to read a degree of Vanitas into this series 'unflinching portrayal of human flesh. We are so accustomed to the critical framework of John Berger's “male gaze” that an initial reading of the images may be obscured by our own theoretical expectations and our personal fears in the face of mortality and social expectation. Casting aside such predispositions one sees that the layers of imagery overlapping and underlying the face do not conceal but rather, embrace the reality of aging as natural growth and change in the process of life and evolution. We are seeing a confirmation of life in its fullness, from youth to decrepitude and everything in between.

These oversized, defiant faces are not shrinking from mortality but insisting on continuity and co-existence. Seen in sequence, they present an allegory of 'being' characterized by all-encompassing compassion and empathy, and mediated by layers of paradoxical coexistence and complementarity. “The stone faced woman” is not a simile for a hardened madam, but a profile grand and full of porous potential looking towards the future. In the next image she returns this gaze from above a blackened hillside, almost patriotic, she looks back as if to say this is a temporary state of affairs, in time I will triumph, like some new age Scarlet O'Hara prepared to accept the challenges of survival. Throughout the series, natural elements play yin yang across the surface of her skin. It may be one face or it may be many, one attitude giving the lie to the other, expressing uncertainty in the face of bold confidence. Always denying the possibility of a single point of view.

Being creatures of dualistic habit and construction, the most common filter for our thoughts on life is the contemplation of our mortality.Vanitas has always been a concern for artists and philosophers, and the self- portrait has been a direct and telling means in this exploration.The historical tradition of self-portrayal is akin to today's personal web page, a sales pitch and a means by which colleagues and patrons might be able to identify you and appreciate your accomplishments. Contemporary artists have many different reasons to explore the self-portrait, but at base, the process gives rise to at least two desirable states of psychological awareness: first a humbling sense of imperfection and then a strange displacement of self as technical objectivity comes into play. Its primary effect is to place its subject outside of “self” through a displacement of time and materials, to exist within the plane of the “other”.

Bonnie Baxter is an artist whose work thrives on mediation. The elaborate processes of printmaking mediates the gesture.The use of unfamiliar digital processes used in the creation of Baphomet required the technical assistance of photographer, Margarita Lypiridou, and Etienne Fortin, who assisted her at SAGAMIE1 as she sorted through her vast compilations of imagery on computer. While not precisely collaborators, their choices, their limitations and the added context of their presences add yet another layer of mediation.The mediation of time is a particularly strong factor in her recent work that draws from her vast store of imagery, her personal iconography. Bonnie relies on the layering of images to create unique connections, to suggest meaning and question presumption.The process of self-portrayal adds yet another mediating layer to her work.

Bonnie Baxter adds to this displacement the distancing effects of multiplication to the extent that her 'self' is subsumed in a series of shifting contexts. The images of the Baphomet series derive from two different digital mediums: first, digital photography and the digital printing process itself. Each process holds the potential for multiplication, yet the shear volume of choice incurred through these processes precludes the banal reproduction of art that Walter Benjamin was concerned with. Digital processing allows virtually infinite choice in the creation of specific and unique contexts for any given image. Bonnie is able to endow each of the heads with its own iconic purpose. In the event that we are unsure of this point, Bonnie's companion dog, her Chi-chi toy which makes it's bobbing-head chihuahua appearance in many of her other series, finds its way into this series as well. It poses the question that this series of digital reproductions must answer? Is a multiple, an object with at least the potential for mass production, any less individual and unique once it has acquired a context? Chi-chi sits on her lips and finds his way among objects that have yet to find their own personal contexts. His unique personality is evident and reiterates the unique individuality of each of these “self- portraits” and the metaphysical impossibility of returning to the“self”of any given moment,the impossibility of recreating context.

From Aristotle's proton organon to George Lucas's midi-chlorians, people throughout time have expressed a sense of profound connection between the corporeal world and a unifying force that in some indefinable way guides the movements of the universe at every scale of existence. It all seems a little too metaphysical for our postmodern existence but, with the arrival of String Theory, physicists are beginning to find mathematical formulae to support a worldview in which the unimaginably tiny impacts the unimaginably vast and everything in between. Moreover, it is just possible that consciousness itself may be a guiding factor. What cannot be denied is the human desire to believe that we can experience life outside of our own bodies, to explain a sense, rare and precious for most, of interconnectedness with the world around us, to sense that we are not confined to a specific timeline or a particular space.

The many layers of mediation which Bonnie invites into her process create individual works that act as portraits of the fragmented existential self, the elusive self which is linked to the shifting unreality of the “present” and the impossibility of “return”. We are different people at each moment in our life, a blend of body and spirit infused with the significance of a specific time and place.The monumental heads of Baphomet defy finality or singularity - deny the possibility that one perfect image - one captured observation - could somehow secure the sole essence of a subject and give it immortality. Instead they propose a fluid state of existence dictated by confluence with our environment. The “I” is a fragment of self that belongs within a much larger body of existence that is both synchronous and timeless.

1 SAGAMIE:The National Research and Exhibition Centre for the Contemporary Digital Art