By Nick Pelling
If you wander into the wonderful world of the Kino Teatr you will, doubtless, find yourself looking at Russell Baker’s intriguing snowscapes. Russell, along with his wife Olga, are the creative brains behind the Kino Arts centre. But it is also worth remembering that Russell is, first and foremost, an artist. He has built a reputation – both as a printmaker and painter – working in what might be called the debateable lands where the abstract and the representative overlap. But what will strike you is that his snowy vistas are distinctly unpeopled. Almost eerily so. And so, it came as some surprise to see that, upstairs in Kino, he is exhibiting a collection of intimate, small portraits of local characters. Why would he make such a painterly U-turn? I decided to ask him, over a cappuccino.
“It has something to do with changing the pathway,” he suggested. I understand this to mean a kind of radical reset. A self-imposed challenge that forces a new kind of way of thinking. But as Russell says, “this is not entirely new, I have always loved portraits. They are a great challenge.”
LEFT: Ray RIGHT: Rebecca
But what precisely is the challenge? “It is a struggle for connection with an individual.” Intriguingly, Baker feels that the brief encounter with a trusting sitter has to be emotionally absorbed before reaching for the medium of paint. After that meditative moment, Baker works very quickly, as if trying to capture a fleeting essence of each unique human being. This method gives his brushwork great energy.
Each of his painted faces certainly does look out at you in differing ways. The portrait ‘Ray’, for example, eyes you with a certain sceptical and almost hostile attitude whilst ‘Rebecca’ is amused but delicately there and not there. All of Baker’s faces come and go in unique moments but the same deftness of subtle colour and line does create an overall stylistic cohesiveness. We are clearly in a distinct world.
Parlour’s coffee is very good and that seems to help our discussions. Baker advances the idea that painting is an exploration that works both ways: looking outward at the subject and inward to tap into an emotional charge. But, this two-way channel is not something unique to portraiture. Indeed, he can see the interconnection between the human and the Siberian.Both have something to do with trying to recover a sensation.
He muses about his childhood feelings derived from being in the landscape of his youth around the Lake District. “I remember the enormity and the sense of being overwhelmed by scale.” Russell was a keen fell runner and remembers the way the landscape could suddenly shift its mood – “a fog can drop in and quickly the familiar becomes the strange.” At those moments, he “realised it wasn’t so much the running as the encounter that drew me.” It suggested a weird parallel with the process of portraiture.
Chatting to Russell certainly made me think about portraiture. In fact, he made me think that the notion that art should just speak for itself is a bit wilfully dim. Art and talking about art are necessarily intertwined. But Russell is not only a sensitive artist; he is a busy manager of the arts centre. Olga and Russell are devoted to providing their unique arts venue for the people of Hastings. I looked across at the pictures again. If paintings really could speak for themselves, I think they would just say, “thanks Russell.” And I would, of course add, thanks Olga, too!
• Baker’s remarkable paintings are on show upstairs at the Kino Teatr in Norman Road.
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