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Leslie Baum

excuse me if I get too deep Edition of 44 copies

Under the spell of my mom’s

voice, I lost myself in good books even before I could read. It didn’t take me long to understand that stories are vehicles capable of transporting the reader to new worlds. I loved creation stories most of all. I am still transfixed by those tales of natural and supernatural

realms—wondrous narratives

that seek to make sense of life and to find meaning within its complexity and mystery.

I have held one story in my mind for years, uncertain how to proceed. The story belongs more or less to Rabbi Luria, a 16th century Jewish scholar. It is foundational,

a Kabbalist

interpretation of Genesis. It is page


In the beginning God’s presence filled the universe.

God drew in God’s breath, contracting into an infinitesimal point.

There was darkness, and then space was created by God’s absence, it was a space bigger than imagination and ready to be filled with creation. Holy vessels came into being and God poured divine light into them. The light was so pure and powerful that it shattered the vessels and the sparks

of holy light fused into each broken


The shards, imbued with divine light, scattered, fell and became

entangled into the newly created

world. Matter and spirit merged. Material and purpose entwined. Object and the essence united.

I often try to comprehend the scale of the universe. I look at the Hubble photographs and listen to Neil De Grasse Tyson explain the complexity of the universe’s origin. Although these attempts help, truly understanding the vastness of space, everything that ever was or will be,



Even more challenging to reconcile is the time before all of this ever existed. I love a creation story for its ability to condense the sheer

magnitude of

such ideas into a poetic form: once there was nothing and then a big

hot bang:

a tiny point exploding, vessels shattering.

What if? It is a question asked by the

curious in every field. It is something that I ask a lot too, especially in the studio. What if I paint a piece of a Paul Cezanne sky or a swath of an Alma Thomas abstraction? What if I cover the floor in a painting and invite the viewer to walk on it? What if I paint an oddly

shaped piece of

canvas and place it on a wall. Could such an object become a passageway to somewhere else,

like a

rabbit hole in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon?

Physicists ask impressively big “what if� questions, ones with mind-boggling implications.

What if there is more out there than we can see, even more than the observable universe? What if there are wormholes and perhaps, even, not just one universe, but a multitude of universes?


Paintings are mutliverses. They give form to visual

speculation and to wonder: a universe

within a universe within a universe. They can make visible what otherwise can’t be seen.

It was after one particular walk around my neighborhood that I began painting the paintings of my favorite artists. Like many people, walking helps me. My busy mind stretches out and into that extra space; new thoughts emerge.

On that day, an entirely unexpected

idea slipped in. Let me step back for a moment, to the days and weeks before that afternoon, before that walk and that sticky thought, back to a series of

paintings that I had recently completed of pottery

shards arranged on the desert floor. These shards were the remains of Pueblo and Anasazi ceramics. Their irregular forms and hand-painted geometries appealed to me. As I was walking that day, I realized that these pottery shard paintings were missing something—their stories. I did not know the narratives behind the shapes and designs. I did know one thing however: I wanted to keep making shard paintings and I wanted to paint in a visual language that was like the

air I breathe.


My visual language is Modernism. European painting post 1840: impressionism, post impressionism, constructivism, cubism, and all the early twentieth century isms; the American painting that

welled up in response to these European movements and the scene around Stieglitz’s Armory show; the textiles of the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstatte.

Left to right: Adolph Gottlieb, Pictograph. Paul Cezanne, In the woods. Joan Miro, Cloud and birds.

All of this—the modern canon—is my visual language.

Left to right: Sonia Delaunay, untitled fabric design. Georgia o’ keeffe. Light coming on the plains II. Edvard munch, Moonlight.

I wanted to shatter the modern painting canon like so many pottery shards; shatter them like divine vessels unable to contain holy light. I wanted to break Matisse’s still lifes and a Frankenthaler’s liquid landscape into pieces. Although there is an implied violence in this thought, my intention was not to destroy. Quite

the opposite, I wanted to create

and to discover; I hoped to see the familiar anew by investigating only a part of the whole. The idea, in practical terms, was to collect reproductions of Klees, Cezannes, Birchfields, Kellys, O’Keefes, to cut them up into shard-like pieces, and then to paint them. In painting them, I would transform them into something new. My hand, after all, is an imperfect tool.

Like the shards on the desert floor, I planned

to arrange them into surprising and suggestive compositions. Central to this idea was a desire to offer a fresh yet familiar visual world that is revealed only by combining historical fragments of art.


In Hebrew, the phrase Tikum Olam is a call to heal the world, to set what is wrong right, and repair what is broken. It has its origins in the story of the shattered vessels and holy sparks. It is a charge to seek out the broken pieces and gather them up. In practice, to follow this directive means to be a good person: to be kind and respectful, to help your fellow human, to pray and meditate, to be philanthropic,


to plant a garden, to volunteer, and to lead by example. Such acts are redemptive and are believed to release the holy sparks from their

hiding places. I apply Tikum Olam to the practice of making art.

I seek out fragments, bits and pieces of shapes and images. I find them in the paintings of the greats who came before me. I gather them up, transform them, and place them in new arrangements and contexts.


Stories are not passive. They instruct, cajole and instigate. The Kabbalah story certainly does. It is a story that invites action: go out, seek, uncover these bits of holy light, gather them, and raise them up. Consider the implications: in every scrap of everything there is a something holy. The material world is infused with sacredness. Some readings of this story have a different view and emphasize that the divine spark alone holds value and that physical matter is just a

husk. I have my own interpretation. I believe there is a union between matter and spirit. Paintings are matter: wooden frame, woven canvas, pigment and binder. They are also the spark: idea, time, labor, and

love. The spark does not need to be released from its hiding place, it just needs to be seen. The act of genuinely seeing something or someone contributes to the repair of the world, to Tikun Olam. The

story of the shattering vessels and holy sparks informs my painting practice. It offers permission to go deep and invest my work with ideas and principles that are bigger than my biography and more meaningful than my idiosyncratic aesthetic preferences. It provides shelter for exploring my curiosity about deeply felt matters of the spirit, the rough and tumble processes of the studio and fantastical ideas posed by contemporary physics. It gently reminds me that paintings are powerful expressly because they are the elegant marriage of material and idea.

Painting is an elastic medium and encompasses a wide array of materials: oil, acrylic, watercolor, spray-paint, wood panel, paper, and plexiglass. However, canvas is the surface most closely associated with the discipline. Its woven texture, whether exposed or buried under layers of gesso, is a virtual stand-in for the practice itself. Each work in this exhibition is a painting on canvas, even the ceramic pieces. They are embossed with cotton duck. The meditation

pillows are canvas, as is the painting covering the floor of the project space. Handling canvas, stretching it across a wooden frame, wiping paint onto and off of it is a daily part of studio life.

Working with these materials creates an intimacy between the maker and the art object. Touching the painting is not only permissible, it is essential. I aspire to collapse that distance, to invite the viewer in, and to offer an intimate experience between beholder and object. I discovered that if I move the painting off the wall and onto the floor, the viewer becomes a participant. An invitation is extended to walk, to sit and to touch a painting.

Ideas evolve. They shift. Now, I am on the look-out, searching for found shapes, some in plain sight and others hidden. The shapes are in the paintings and

Sometimes I even encounter them on my neighborhood walks, in the way the tree casts a shadow or a leaf tilts from a stem. They are my holy sparks. drawings of the modern canon.

I know them when I see them. The recognition goes both ways. I gather them up and arrange them just so.

The shapes are universal and geometric: a circle, a triangle, an arch, a diamond column. But they are something else too: resolutely particular, distinct and irregular, and full of individual specificity and imperfection.

I love them for this balanced dualism. Paintings, too, are balanced dualism for me: material and idea, matter and light, object and place, memory and future, image and experience, question and answer.

I continue to walk everyday. From time to time, sticky ideas bubble up and linger in my mind. Mostly, however, I just breathe and look all around. I walk with open eyes, recognizing the world of my neighborhood and the incremental changes in the landscape. I am always on the lookout for the holy sparks.

Leslie Baum  

Artist book and catalogue for Leslie Baum's exhibition EXCUSE ME IF I GET TOO DEEP at Geary Contemporary, 185 Varick St. NYC, 2016.

Leslie Baum  

Artist book and catalogue for Leslie Baum's exhibition EXCUSE ME IF I GET TOO DEEP at Geary Contemporary, 185 Varick St. NYC, 2016.