Chelis Baird: The touch of red
The National Arts Club
From March 21 to April 8, 2022
By VITTORIA BENZINEApril 2022
Last week, North Carolina-born, New York-based multimedia artist Chellis Baird celebrated his latest solo exhibition at The National Arts Club following his fellowship with the Gramercy Park institution. Title The touch of red, Baird’s show pays homage to the most provocative hue of visible light. Seductive, menacing and determined, red permeates pop culture through idioms – “red baddies”, “red fear” and the ever-seductive “lady in red”. As 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 is actually centered around his favorite accessory, MAC’s Lady Danger. “I wanted to create a series inspired by my lipstick, work that touches on the many different aspects of red,” Baird explained in the exhibit. “[Red] can mean love or war, a symbol of good luck or more alluring. It could be very warm or very alarming.
The exhibition opens with a cleansing palette – three abstract black and white photos of Baird’s lips on gelatin silver prints. She began this series by playing with her lipstick, applying and kissing various Japanese woodblock papers to study their interactions with the cosmetic.
“It would sometimes look very cadmium, and other times more blue-red,” recalls Baird. “At different times of the day, I was kissing the paper, and it would sometimes break and get more pink and leave more negative space.” She photographed these studies, enlarging the images, cropping them and re-photographing them. For the opening reception, MAC donated extra lipsticks for attendees to color in oversized prints of these images.
“For me, the more classic black-and-white execution is a great twist on this very contemporary image,” Baird said. “It almost acts like a ghost of the process because it’s black and white. I wanted it to have a landscape quality. Many people walking in and out of the galleries thought it was 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 employed for the show, which also include partnering with a foundry and experimenting with foil stamping. Three, the number of creation, proves another common thread. Baird has created five “Lady Danger” pieces so far – three are featured in this exhibition. Another work, titled “Serpentine” appears three times, once in its raw state as white plaster, once in aluminum, and once in plaster with 23-karat Florentine gold leaf.
“I was excited to share the versatility of a form in different ways,” Baird said looking at the white plaster iteration. “While these two aren’t necessarily red, they represent an endless, winding winding road or path that can be very warm and engaging.”
She built her practice by exploring textiles in unexpected ways. As craftsmanship sweeps center stage in contemporary art, Baird’s relief works offer cool abstraction and tangled textures. A “Lady Danger” creates a particular dichotomy, a sensual silk painted with inflexible acrylic. “I was thinking what a painting is to me – it’s basically fabric, paint and wood,” Baird reflected. “It led me to literally pierce the canvas and start weaving my own language out of the same materials.” This piece appears on a bespoke mahogany frame with a pale black finish, an elegant exclamation mark.
Larger works like “Betty Boop” and “Smile” evoke reactions through taut tendons, negative space and shadows screaming Baird’s love for Hitchcock films. “I wanted [these pieces] to represent a more airy, fluid and soft evolution of color,” Baird said. “I started with a birch board behind, then threads and layers of cotton fabric – some of it is actually cotton gauze called tobacco fabric.” The exposed string sets a benchmark for the viewer’s eye, navigating through shades that mimic muscle tissue.
The physicality that underpins Baird’s practice begins with dance. “I’ve taken up ballet all my life for fun and exercise,” she said. “I go to the dance studio and think of myself as a drawing in space, and then I bring that back to my studio and use that language to better inform my compositions.” She started wearing red lipstick to dance performances as a child, which turned into costume parties while studying textiles at RISD. Baird went on to work for fashion legends like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, releasing her bold lips during corporate life. “When I got into art full time, I revisited shadow,” the artist said.
A clockwise dive into the exhibition ends with “Everlasting Red”, which Baird created in 2019. The oldest artwork in this exhibition, it bases these works on Baird’s past , a study in early growth. She noticed a correlation between confidence and the liveliness of her lipstick. Baird hopes viewers leave The touch of red with a new understanding of red, as she sees the role of color in our decision-making. “We tend to be color safe,” Baird clarified. “I think color should be embraced.”
The NAC offered him an opportune moment to realize this tribute to red. “I was looking for a space that would contain 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 almost acts like a core. I wanted the quality of the work to have that central warmth.
Baird’s love of textiles is rooted in his upbringing in North Carolina, the epicenter of America’s textile industry and a mirror of 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 lipstick began in shades of soft pink and “became more and more saturated as I got older”. This growth results in The touch of red, starting with lipstick. WM