Chellis Baird: The Touch of Red
The National Arts Club
March 21 through April 8, 2022
By VITTORIA BENZINE, April 2022
Last week, NC-born and NYC-based multimedia artist Chellis Baird celebrated her latest solo show at The National Arts Club following her fellowship with the Gramercy Park institution. Titled The Touch of Red, Baird’s show honors visible light’s most provocative hue. Seductive, threatening, and determined, red permeates pop culture through idioms—“the mean reds,”“red scare,” and the ever-alluring “lady in red.” Like Chris Brown sings on “I Can Transform Ya,” “red lips, red dress, like ‘em like a fire truck.” This kind of intensity creates metamorphosis.
Baird’s relationship with red actually centers around her preferred accessory, Lady Danger by MAC. “I wanted to create a series inspired by my lipstick, work that touches on the many different aspects of red,” Baird explained amongst the exhibition. “[Red] can mean love or war, a symbol of good luck or more seductive. It could be very warm or very alarming.”
The exhibition opens with a palette cleanser—three abstract black and white photos of Baird’s lips in silver gelatin prints. She started this series by playing with her lipstick, applying and kissing various Japanese printmaking papers to study their interactions with the cosmetic.
“It would sometimes look very cadmium, and other times look more blue-red,” Baird recalled. “At different times of day I would kiss the paper, and it would sometimes break off and be more pink and leave more negative space.” She photographed these studies, enlarging the images, cropping them, and re-photographing. For the opening reception, MAC donated extra lipsticks for attendees to color oversized prints of these images.
“For me, the black and white, more classic execution is a great twist and take on this very contemporary image,” Baird stated. “It acts almost like a ghost of the process because it is black and white. I wanted it to have a landscape quality. A lot of people coming in and out of the galleries have thought these were trees or water—which is also fun to take something and have it travel to the viewer in its own form.”
The Touch of Red marks Baird’s first experience working with a photo developer—one of three new techniques she’s employed for the show, which also include partnering with a foundry and experimenting with gilding. Three, the number of creation, proves another underlying thread. So far Baird has created five “Lady Danger” pieces—three are shown in this exhibition. Another artwork, titled “Serpentine,” appears three times, once in its raw state as a white plaster cast, once in aluminum, and once in plaster with 23 karat Florentine gold leaf.
“I was excited to share the versatility of one form in different ways,” Baird said, gazing at the white plaster iteration. “Although these two are not necessarily red, they very much represent a never ending, winding serpentine road or path that can be very warm and engaging.”
She’s built her practice by exploring textiles in unexpected ways. As craft sweeps contemporary art’s center stage, Baird’s relief works offer fresh abstraction and tangling textures. One “Lady Danger” crafts a particular dichotomy, sensual silk painted with unyielding acrylic. “I was thinking about what is a painting for me—it’s basically fabric, paint and wood,” Baird mused. “That led me to literally punch through the canvas and start weaving my own language with the same materials.” This piece pops against a bespoke mahogany frame with faint black finish, an elegant exclamation point.
Larger works like “Betty Boop” and “Smile” evoke reactions through taut sinews, negative space and shadows shouting out Baird’s love for Hitchcock films. “I wanted [these pieces] to represent a more airy, fluid, sweet evolution of the color,” Baird said. “I started with a birch panel behind and then wires and layers of cotton fabric—some of it is actually a cotton gauze called Tobacco cloth.” Exposed rope lays a benchmark for the viewer’s eye, navigating shades that mimic muscle tissue.
The physicality underpinning Baird’s practice begins with dance. “I've taken ballet all my life for pleasure and exercise,” she said. “I go to the dance studio and think of myself as drawing in space—then I take that back to my studio, and use that language to better inform my compositions.” She started wearing red lipstick for childhood dance performances, which grew into costume parties while studying textiles at RISD. Baird went on to work for fashion legends like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, easing off her bold lips during corporate life. “When I moved into art full time I revisited the shade,” the artist said.
A clockwise dive into the exhibition concludes with “Everlasting Red,” which Baird created in 2019. The oldest artwork in this show, it grounds these work in Baird’s past, a study at the start of growth. She’s noticed a correlation between confidence and her lipstick’s vivacity. Baird hopes viewers leave The Touch of Red with a new understanding of red, because she sees color’s role in our decision-making. “We tend to be safe with color,” Baird clarified. “I think color should be embraced.”
The NAC offered her an opportune moment to craft this homage to red. “I've been searching for a space that would hold the color in an intimate way,” Baird explained. “This room has that intimacy, and it's also very much in the center of the building. It acts almost like a core. I wanted the quality of the work to have that central warmth.”
Baird’s love for textiles originates with her upbringing in North Carolina, the epicenter of America’s fabric industry—and a mirror for red’s nuanced history. Like red, she says, these materials command their own agency. “Fabric can articulate its own language through the slightest drape, a slightly different finish or a slightly deeper hue.” Her relationship with red lipstick started off in shades of soft pink, and “got more and more saturated as I became older.” This growth plays out through The Touch of Red, starting with lipstick. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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