Beauty Is the New Punk Rock

Little Lady Liberty Looking Lost is a portrait of Lise Haller Baggesen’s daughter, who, for the occasion of Halloween is dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. The girl is averting her head, and it is her striking apparel and shiny locks of hair that catch the eye. Supple strokes of chalk make a sketchy impression of the child figure. The vividly colored lines of the hair further emphasize the distance to reality: the whole figure could be conceived as ornament. Here, Haller Baggesen plays an airy game with the traditions of her métier, with virtuosity—because she is skillful and she likes her handiwork—and mockingly, by making her daughter, crowned as the Statue of Liberty, the center of adoration. The mockery is underlined by the title of the work, which, together with its sister image Little Lady Liberty Licking Lollipop, can be perceived as a mild satiric comment on the ideals of “Liberty for All” of Haller Baggesen’s new “homeland.”

In the summer of 2008 Haller Baggesen moved with her family from Amsterdam to Chicago, and her life changed drastically. Because she herself and her immediate surroundings are the source of her work, the transition to the United States became immediately apparent. In the Netherlands her subject matter was already distilled from everyday experiences. The series Stories For Boys (2004), for example, shows domestic scenes of her and her husband playing with their son, although these—in her own words—“little dramas of family life,” undeniably have a somewhat uneasy psychological undercurrent. In Chicago her work becomes more visibly influenced by current events. The New Black, for example, shows the family in the heat of the battle for the American presidency, featuring Barack Obama and the two prominent female leads, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. At the moment of Haller Baggesen’s arrival in Chicago, Obama-mania was peaking and election fever was soaring. “In Chicago, we suddenly found ourselves in a different position as a family. In the Amsterdam art scene, being a family is often seen as somewhat bourgeois, where as here we were considered left-wing liberals. Nobody is literally labeling you as such—but we certainly were perceived differently. What interested me was that a new context also made us see ourselves through different eyes. Essentially nothing had changed, but suddenly I found myself unreservedly sporting a T-shirt with a portrait of a politician on it— something I had never done in Europe! So, I wanted to tell a tale about migration and adaptation and that is, of course, ambiguous. Something so close to you can not only be ironic.”

The New Black presents the family as a compact group, donning the aforementioned Obama T- shirts. With a proud posture and an intransigent gaze, they are firmly framed by the letters of the title, which, in the top half of the picture are colored in with the red, white and blue of the American (and also the Dutch) flag. It is an ambiguous image. The figures are painted as if spot- lit, as if they themselves are the heroes of this new adventure. Haller Baggesen makes use of propagandist imagery, which in this context brings to mind the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the rhetoric of the propaganda posters of the Soviet regime from the first half of the last century. Also, for connoisseurs of the band Queen, the association with the opening shot of their video for the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” is obvious. To top it all off, the carrier of the image—a rich, black velvet—is ideal material for handicraft. The notion of crafts is not surprising. Haller Baggesen is crazy about the velvet posters, which were based on preprinted motifs and were colored in and used to adorn many a teenage bedroom wall during her adolescence in the 1980s. And which, to this day, remain popular with American preteens, serving the fan bases for everything from My Little Pony to Hannah Montana and Jesus Christ Our Lord. With her tongue firmly in her cheek, Haller Baggesen draws from these totally different pictorial traditions and happily transcends the borders of what commonly is considered art. In The New Black this results in an interaction between the different topics that are touched upon: from current political affairs in the United States—via the positioning of an immigrant family—to the position which Haller Baggesen is seeking for herself as an artist.

Another of her works made shortly after her move is Absent Minded Friends. This too is a family portrait, painted on the same black velvet. Just as in The New Black, the figures bear a resemblance to Haller Baggesen and her family members, but first and foremost they function as archetypes: a man, a woman, a boy and a girl. Together they hold up an oval tableau in which a picnic party can be seen, a dreamy scene—dominated by a decorative pattern of tree motifs —which seems to belong to another reality, apart from the people. Longingly they gaze at it, as if at the snowy miniature world in a crystal ball. With its mix of melancholia and devotion, Absent Minded Friends resembles an adoration scene in medieval painting. However, the subtly painted figures and the way they elegantly join the layout of the composition are strikingly mannerist. Just like the ornamental pattern, they too are submitted to the order of the image, which successfully directs the gaze around the center. In this work the artist is playing out traditional painting techniques and art-historical references, in direct relation to her personal situation. Not only the motive—the pining—but also the use of material can not be seen as separate from her new life in America. Through the use of pastel crayons in combination with spray paint and glitter, a picture emerges that is excessive, “superficial” and literally sparkly, but at the same time stiller, deeper, and maybe also darker than earlier work.

In much of her recent work Haller Baggesen makes offhand references to the old masters. She is attracted to the playful coquetry of painters such as Fragonard and Boucher, and it pleases her that their work has alternately been regarded “high art” and “low art” in successive periods. The (seeming) lightheartedness of these artists, transcending the borders of good taste, and their unwillingness to succumb to commonly acknowledged expectations, also plays a role in Haller Baggesen’s work. “Rococo fits these times perfectly: It is not going very well in the USA, but still, I and a lot of others, live in what you could call a lightness of being. I wanted to show that, without moralizing in any way. Rococo is so much more ambiguous than, for example, Baroque: The unspoken and the tongue-in-cheek leave much more up to the viewer. Likewise, I really enjoy the lightness of a movie such as Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola, which, it has been said, leaned too heavily on style above substance. I take pleasure in this minute attention to detail, especially when it goes together with a darker undertow. English New Wave music from the seventies and eighties, like New Order and David Bowie, displays a similar decadence. But also contemporary bands, such as Antony and the Johnsons and Joan as Police Woman—whose idiom ‘Beauty is the New Punk Rock’ became my credo in a certain sense while I was making this new series of works—play with this. I like this kind of playful decadence and the flirt with the public.”

In Haller Baggesen’s case, her personal positioning with regard to (the history of) painting is colored not only by the celebration of craftsmanship, but above all by a taste for rock and roll. In the diptych (Shake it like a) Ladder to the Sun we see a child on a climbing frame. The little figure outlines itself against a dark sky, lit by a low hanging sun. In me, this image evokes memories of the etching The Ancient of Days (1794) by William Blake, in which God from his cloud, measuring device in hand, addresses the world below. The poems and artwork by Blake—broadly, most well- known as the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement, which peaked at the turn of the 20th century—are widely praised for the exceptional freedom of imagination that they exude. In the 1960s and 1970s, his work once more became the center of attention, this time by artists such as Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. The latter, in particular, in turn has informed Haller Baggesen’s work. My association with William Blake is initially based on formal observations and the undeniable mystic undercurrent in these two small works. But here again is another, lighter charge, because the title heeds from a pop song by a band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And that— in light of recent work by Haller Baggesen—is a name that speaks volumes.

Mariska van den Berg, Amsterdam November 2009

To see the black album and other works by Lise Haller Baggesen, please go to