Monika Baer's recent solo exhibition of paintings and works on paper includes four maps. But like most maps in art, they can't be used to pin down an actual place. Instead, they look like fantasy guides to a subjective terrain loaded with erotic overtones; topographies with intriguing nooks, crannies and dream-like transitions. In the middle of Map No. 2: Camp (2001) a cheeky semi-nude prances out of a tent wearing frilly transparent crotchless leggings. Near by her doppelgangers are chatting away; in Baer's maps you can be in more than one place and mindset at the same time. The main figure's skimpy attire recalls the alluring ruffled garment in Aubrey Beardsley's Lysistrata (1896), and the pencil sketch style that brings her to life has something in common with Ellen Cantor, but Baer's figure seems to have been thinking about something else. Rather than invoking sex as a potent method for ending war, or the exorcism of sexual conflict and ugly power struggles, the work has a sexy mood of self-satisfaction that borders on the auto-erotic. The work's atmosphere of emancipation is emphasized by the inclusion of a humorous counterpoint: a kneeling, suited fellow with a drooping box-shaped head, who is busily scrubbing an invisible spot. Maybe it's a map showing the way to an unbridled celebration of the feminine.
If this is the case, then some of Baer's modestly scaled paintings have an alarming motif. Their compositions radiate from the torsos of naked women who have smudges where their heads should be. The renewed popularity of figurative painting hasn't altered the fact that painting is a real taskmaster. One clear indication of an artist's technical sophistication is how he or she responds to the challenge of heads, hands and feet. Arguably it's just as demanding to get them wrong in the right way, like Katharina Wulff or Elisabeth Peyton on a good day. In earlier paintings Baer has already shown she can paint convincingly - the best examples are her paintings inspired by Mozart marionettes, which are much larger and more garish than her new works - so the absence of heads and the rough surfaces and edges in the new works must be a matter of choice. These were probably just a way of sidestepping the problem of virtuosity without resorting to the tired bravado of the intentionally bad or the wilfully naughty, another currently acceptable approach. The parts of the pictures around the women could be understood as efforts to capture their contents before they dissipate - as if the external world was one big destructive centrifugal force. Untitled paintings, such as the one in which a pair of twin selves are immersed in a brushy hot orange field and another whose solitary figure seems to be quietly generating rose blobs like a slow-burning firework, suggest that these works are an attempt to create some kind of free headspace. It doesn't matter that it is one delineated by the edge of a canvas.
Stains, fast brushstrokes, sections where the canvases remain raw or patchily primed and the presence of hairs and other detritus all suggest a less than immaculate studio, and plenty of time passing between intense sessions with a poised brush. These things, which elsewhere might be dismissed as naive or pretentious, worked here like a welcome relief, especially considering that so much other art work is anxiously clinical. In terms of painting it is obvious that Baer has collected techniques and approaches from various schools and artists, ranging from Surrealism through to Sigmar Polke, Luc Tuymans and perhaps even Judy Chicago, much as you might buy bits of crockery from a flea market to arrange on a fresh tablecloth. Although these works signal something of a new direction for the artist and are at times a bit tentative, they possess an endearing lightness and modesty. In a terrifyingly immodest world, Douglas Crimp recently observed, modesty in the realm of painting has an ethical dimension.