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'I need a doctor!' – the filthy, furious, fun-filled art of Vanessa Baird

Adrian Searle
·7-min read

Looking at Vanessa Baird’s gigantic pastel seas, her self-portraits and scenes of everyday life – some of them completed during lockdown in Oslo – part of me wants to run away. Grotesque, alarming, claustrophobic and often abject, Baird’s watercolours, drawings and pastel works teeter between humour and malice, the confessional and the slapstick. Her first UK show at London’s Drawing Room, twice abandoned during the pandemic, goes live online today, and Baird will be showing at Glasgow Women’s Library next year.

Teenagers maunder about, staring at phones and tablets, hypnotised by devices, getting in the way and filling the house with their clutter. An older woman sits at the table, amid Corn Flakes packets and pizza boxes, her T-shirt declaring she’s a Rubislaw Girl, an elderly Aberdonian, nearing 90, at home in Oslo, where she lives with her daughter and her grandchildren. She is a recurring presence in Baird’s work. Here she is again, in her red dressing gown, slack-jawed asleep, looking like the face in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. And now the old lady’s going at the walls with a broom, her adult daughter before her, knickers down, among fag packets and toothpaste tubes and God knows what else on the carpet, the younger woman’s bare arse raw from a beating, presumably with that broom.

Unaccountably, and worryingly, she is dressed as some sort of infant Lolita, or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Our parents make our adult selves regress. We are in Norway, not Kansas, and the tornadoes are all indoors. Boiling with intergenerational resentments, annoyances, frustrations, argument and domestic incidents of one sort or another, Baird depicts a pressure-cooker life: boring, repetitive and extraordinary, the emotional weather intemperate and unpredictable. It is a rackety life, the walls closing in.

There are few limits or boundaries in Baird’s art, which chronicles her everyday experience, her fantasies, her frustrations, the dynamics of artistic and family life. As well as her family, Baird’s house – where she was born and grew up – also seems to be occupied by the ghosts of Munch and playwright Henrik Ibsen, and the example of Norwegian director Vegard Vinge and German set designer Ida Müller’s scatalogical, sexual and disturbing collaborative performance works (which have included re-workings of Ibsen’s plays).

In one alarming drawing, Baird references Vinge and Muller, and depicts her own eyes popping out. Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose auto-fictional confessions are indiscreet to a fault, is somewhere in there, too. (Baird illustrated his 2017 book Autumn, with a brooding sea on the cover. Another illustration has a badger snuffling its way between a woman’s open legs.) I wouldn’t be surprised to find her a fan of Chekhov, Pina Bausch and Paul McCarthy. She has also illustrated Norwegian folktales and the Brothers Grimm, mining their psychological depths. Fairytale characters, the Smurfs and SpongeBob SquarePants have also wandered into her works – SpongeBob frolicking in excrement, Little Red Riding Hood having sex with the Big Bad Wolf. Marina Warner would have fun with all this, and so can we.

Baird’s art is filled with primal scenes and bawdy pratfalls, malodorous gusts, stomach-churning moments. Whatever is repressed leaks out: people throw up over dinner, Baird proffers her arse and mum gets a lapful of excrement. And here’s the artist, looking crazed, looming over her emaciated mother beneath her feet. “I NEED A DOCTOR” screams the drawing’s inscription.

As uncensored as it is prolific, Baird’s art is incontinent, psychologically as much as physically. She once suggested making a book titled Thirty Shades of Brown. I am reminded of the painter Marlene Dumas’s remark: “I paint because I am a dirty woman.” Clearing up and cleaning are but two aspects of still mainly female labour and care, the repetitive drudgery of caring for others, as well as the bore of caring for oneself. Emotional and domestic labour all has its place in Baird’s work, and she acknowledges the rage that this instils in her often furious, urgent art, much of it completed at home, clearing a space for herself on the kitchen table or in her children’s bedrooms, with no time or space to squander.

There are quiet moments, but given the context they’re almost always disturbing. Sturdy unlaced boots stand on the bathroom floor. A body, submerged in the bath, is just a sliver of pink watercolour, a back breaking the surface. The children are in bed, it is night. You think of their dreams, of horrible silences and the house creaking. Spend too long with these drawings, and their sickly atmospheres and teetering expressionist perspectives, and you just want to get out of there. Thoughts of murder and violence hang in the air, along with body odours, the smells of illness, old age, of vomit or farts, teenage hormones, cooking and cleaning products. The walls swarm with pattern, heightening the sense of claustrophobia.

The sense of being surrounded and overwhelmed continues in the huge, scroll-like vertical hangings that fill a large part of the Drawing Room. They are drawn with chalky soft pastels on grainy, heavy paper, hanging floor to ceiling on the gallery walls. Wave after wave, ripple after ripple, Baird depicts an endless swell on which bodies float on the tide, faces wallow like jellyfish, lifebelts rock and turn on the waves. There’s Munch’s Scream again, rendered like a flaccid condom drifting on the tide. The more you let your eye wander, the more you find: a sports bag, drowning; wide-eyed, eddying faces, ghostly presences and floundering refugees, face down in the water. In the corner, down near the floor, a pair of ducks float and dive. The sea is mesmerising and terrible.

Baird was born to a Scottish mother and Norwegian father, spending part of her childhood in Scotland, and studied illustration under Quentin Blake at the Royal College of Art in the 1980s. She has won Norway’s most important art prize and designed the Nobel Peace prize diploma, and one huge set of wall-filling, scroll-like pastel works for Norway’s Ministry of Health had to be partially covered, after it was installed in 2013, as it appeared to reference the July 2011 bombing of government headquarters by Anders Breivik, that killed eight people. Breivik went on to murder 69 young people on Utøya Island. Baird’s work was designed before the bombing, and its depictions of seas of paper were meant to be an image of bureaucracy rather than a bombed-out office. She has since become one of Norway’s best-known artists.

Unsparing of herself, the Drawing Room show opens with a room dedicated to self-portraits, produced over several years. The same face appears numerous times; together they look like nothing so much as grisly rows of guillotined heads, each face recognisably the same, but each different: gawping, somnolent, faint and spectral, bloated; many as blotchy as over-ripe apples. Boggle-eyed, skewed and sunken-eyed, each an unsmiling gamut of deformations. Some are crying, or sweating, or even melting waxy dribbles.

More than caricature, these watercolour images are carefully dated, and many are captioned, telling us the dosage of pharmaceuticals Baird was taking when she made them. Some, though not all of these portraits, have the collective title Red Herring. Prednisolon, Ciclosporin, referring to medication Baird takes for the chronic kidney illness she has had for many years. Almost diagnostic, they loom and bloom and rise before us, again and again, from the blank white paper. Stoical, vulnerable, delicate and sometimes awful, their repetition feels important. They unpeel themselves as we look. More than anything else here, I can’t get them out of my head.

  • Vanessa Baird: If Ever There Were an End to a Story That Had No Beginning is at Drawing Room online until 9 May.