SARAH BAKER COMES HOME AGAIN:
A WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL RECONSTRUCTION

by Edmund Cardoni for the Our Time Digest (catalogue), 2012

“America—it is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time” (Thomas Wolfe).

American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) is famously quoted as having written “you can’t go home again,” a declaration whose meaning (like most famous quotations and misquotations) has been interpreted in myriad ways over the past seventy years. In actuality, those five words in that order only appear in print as the title of Wolfe’s posthumously published (and titled) 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, derived by its posthumous editor (Edward Aswell of Harper & Row) from a slightly differently worded passage from the previously “left over” parts of a massive (but not Wolfe’s most massive) manuscript whose working title was October Fair, other parts of which had been cut down to “bestseller size” by legendary Scribner’s editor Max Perkins and turned into Wolfe’s second and most commercially successful novel in the author’s brief lifetime, Of Time and the River (1935).

And before I go any further (he said, cavalierly employing the first person in a critical essay), I must make a confession, one, however, that I hope you (the reader) will see not as a digression, but as central to understanding the sources and process of 21st-century media artist Sarah Baker’s brilliantly layered and complex visual and narrative work, the subject of this essay.

So here’s my confession: even though I (that pronoun again!) was an English major in college in the waning decades of the 20th century (long before the Internet), hold two Master’s degrees, completed doctoral studies (still well before the Internet) in English literature at UB (all but a dissertation) under Leslie Fiedler, who chaired my orals committee and grilled me on the history of the novel as a genre from the 18th century to before the personal computer, i.e., what at the time was the present day, and even though I read my share of Thomas Wolfe in my time (although of the Scribner’s triumvirate of “Great American Novelists” edited by Perkins I preferred and spent more time reading and studying Hemingway and Fitzgerald than Wolfe), I had to double-check (or refresh my memory about) every fact contained in my opening paragraph on—yes, you guessed it—Wikipedia. There, I’ve said it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I knew all of it once, I swear to you. By which I mean—epistemologically speaking—that it had gotten from hundreds, maybe thousands of printed pages to the inside of my skull and was (is) still lodged in there somewhere. I knew what I wanted to say relating Sarah Baker’s homecoming to Wolfe’s, I knew what to look for to help me say it (i.e., what search terms to Google), and I knew where to look for it, by which I mean I knew where to look for it on line. Not only Wikipedia, of course: other search results came up, too. But mostly Wikipedia. Yes, I used Google, and Wikipedia, and I am not ashamed.

Wouldn’t you? I mean, get real! (Or do I mean “get virtual”?) It’s a snowy Sunday afternoon, I’m on a tight deadline, composing this on a computer (Apple, of course) that is connected to the Internet. So I’m supposed to…what? Run out to the public library? Schlep up the steep stairs to the cold attic of my Victorian house on Norwood Avenue (the same street, by the way, where Sarah Baker grew up ages 3-17—all through her public school years at Bennett Park Montessori Center and Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts until going off to San Francisco to get her BFA at that city’s famed Art Institute) and dig my yellowing old Thomas Wolfe tomes out of musty old cardboard boxes? To forage for what I can find with a few keystrokes and clicks of the mouse? Are you kidding me?

And when you go to Wikipedia and other web sites to confirm certain things you already know, or once knew (in this case, the facts contained in my opening paragraph, which you can take to the bank, I promise you), you discover other things, right? Things that resonate with what you’ve been thinking about Sarah Baker’s work in general, and her new work, Our Time, in particular. (Our Time? Of Time and the River? In Sarah’s case, the Niagara River? In particular, The Falls?) And how can you ignore such things before getting on with it?

So you discover (or rediscover) that Wolfe’s famous declaration, “you can’t go home again,” used after his untimely death as the title of the first (not last) of his posthumously published novels, “comes [quoting Wikipedia] from the finale of the novel when protagonist [and Wolfe alter ego] George Webber realizes [quoting Wolfe], ‘You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’”

You learn (or are reminded) that Wolfe “returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing the first version of a novel, O Lost, which eventually evolved into Look Homeward Angel, an autobiographical novel that fictionalized his early experiences in Asheville, [a narrative chronicling] family, friends, and the boarders at his mother’s establishment on Spruce Street,” and that “in the book, [Wolfe] renamed the town Altamont and called the boarding house ‘Dixieland,’” and that “his family was fictionalized under the name Gant, with Wolfe calling himself Eugene, his father Oliver, and his mother Eliza.” And that “the publication of the novel [in October 1929] caused a stir in Asheville, with its over 200 thinly disguised local characters,” and that “Wolfe chose to stay away from Asheville for eight years due to the uproar [and] traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship.”

And being an English major (albeit one now working in the world of contemporary art rather than academia), this strikes you (me) as relevant because after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute with her BFA in 2001, Sarah Baker, the subject of your (my) essay, also crossed the Atlantic to Europe, in her case London, England, where after earning a Master’s in Fine Art, she stayed and has lived another nine years. Except that in Baker’s case (unlike Wolfe’s) she is only now—after many years abroad rather than before—producing a narrative work “about” her hometown of Buffalo—Our Time—fictionalized, yes, but decidedly not autobiographical, because its sources are not life—or at least not her life, not her lived life—but (as in her earlier works) the popular media she either grew up with or, more often, went back and systematically researched—with maybe a little history and geography and current events thrown in—with dozens of “local characters,” albeit not “thinly disguised” ones, but shiny new invented ones, based on character types from the pulp fiction she loves and the TV soap operas she never really cared for (at least the daytime ones), but watched on DVD box sets later, for research purposes (except, unlike the DVDs, she also includes the commercials), and given fictitious names, although in some cases she has given real names (“Jerome” after her own Buffalo business-owning, “workaholic” grandfather, “Cindy” after art-school inspiration Cindy Sherman, “Joan” after Jackie Collins’s older sister, famous for playing Alexis Colby as well as her kid sister’s literary creation, “The Bitch”) to fictional characters with nothing in common with their real-life namesakes other than the names themselves, and the significance—personal or artistic—of these personages to Sarah Baker. (In the spirit of full disclosure, she chose the name “Cindy” not only for Sherman, but also for her real-life synchronized swimming coach.)

Following the Wiki links further, you learn that from Wolfe’s October Fair manuscript, “a multi-volume epic roughly the length of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Max Perkins, “considering the commercial possibilities of publishing the book in full” (or more likely  considering the commercial risk of doing so) “opted to cut it down significantly and create a single, bestseller sized volume which would be titled Of Time and the River, [a]novel more commercially successful than Look Homeward, Angel.”  And, incidentally, published in 1935, when Wolfe was 35 years old, Sarah Baker’s age in 2012, the year of the debut of Our Time. (Note to editors: I mention Proust not only for the whole “search for lost time thing,” but also to signal to you that my long sentences are intentional and had better not be broken up into shorter ones. Got it?)

You learn finally (and this is the last thing I’ll say about Thomas Wolfe) that whereas in his celebrated first novel Look Homeward, Angel, according to New York Times Book Review critic Margaret Wallace, Wolfe had produced "as interesting and powerful a book as has ever been made out of the drab circumstances of provincial American life,” causing the legendary “stir” and “uproar” that kept him from going home again, in the case of the best-selling Of Time and the River, “the citizens of Asheville were more upset this time if they hadn’t been included than if they had.”
 

A cake of Larkin's "Sweet Home" soap. From the Collection of Jerome P. Puma.

Would Darwin D. Martin and his boss John D. Larkin be pleased or upset to be evoked in Our Time (sounds a little like Our Town, too, no?) in the composite character of the philandering “Jerome” (portrayed by Vincent O’Neill)? Well, philandering aside, Martin might be pleased to see his house not only restored but inhabited again, and soap magnate Larkin might be pleased to see his company (“established in 1875, ceased operations in the 1940s”: thanks again, Google!) live on into the shiny, new 21st century as Baker’s fictitious “Sparkle,” and both should be honored to be brought to life in Baker’s script and sparkling cinematography by the handsome and dapper O’Neill. And speaking of sparkling, I know for a fact that second-hand gold magnate Don Hoffman (whose Airport Plaza “Kiosk” is, shall we say, a bit more modest than Wright’s 1906 Larkin Administration building) is thrilled to be playing himself in Our Time. (I must insert here that, unlike the first generation of “Pictures” artists, Baker’s fascination with and use of kitsch, bling, and pulp fiction/soap opera tropes is almost completely without  irony, as is her admiration for creators such as Jackie Collins, whose novels have sold 400 million copies, somewhat more than the “best-selling” Of Time and the River. Pardon my French, but for its auteur, Our Time is more homage than pastiche. Which makes it more interesting as contemporary art, which has grown a little over-ironized.)

Wikipedia, I love you. And if my late lamented mentor Leslie Fiedler were still here to have it at his fingertips, I’m sure he would, too, albeit not uncritically. (Wikipedia was formally launched on January 15, 2001; Leslie Fiedler died on January 29, 2003. And though I was close to Leslie, interviewed him at length not long before his death, and attended the memorial service, guess where I just had to search to fact-check those two dates. Hint: If you guessed my brain, you’re wrong.)

In my long recorded interview with (foray into the formative influences and imaginative mind of) Sarah Baker, who is exactly a generation younger than I (yes, she could be my daughter, although my actual daughter is exactly half her age), and who was growing up as a little girl and young teenager (1977–1994) in the same Elmwood Village neighborhood I have lived in (at three different addresses) from 1985 to the present (therefore overlapping by nine years, although our respective residencies on Norwood Avenue, where I moved in 1998, never overlapped), lots of things came up that one or the other of us was ignorant of and would have to Google later, e.g., Lucky Santangelo for me, Eric von Stroheim’s silent film masterpiece Greed (1924) and its 19th-century literary source, Frank Norris’s McTeague for her. (I got the feeling she will be watching the restored Greed with its Bakeresque title and hand-gilded frames on DVD; I doubt I will be reading Jackie Collins any time soon.) But many more things came up that we shared in common, despite our generation gap: contemporary art, Cindy Sherman, MAC cosmetics, The Last of the Mohicans, Wes Studi, Dynasty, Twin Peaks, The Love Boat—which, unlike most contemporary artists, she preferred to Twin Peaks, daytime soap operas like General Hospital, that series’ Luke and Laura plotline, various “Real Housewives” reality shows, and Colombo. But the differences in how we had these in common are, in the end (and I am reaching the end) illuminating.

Let me take them in order, leaving aside contemporary art, where I think we’re on the same page (and Real Housewives, which I can’t stand): 1) Whereas Baker learned (and wrote) about Cindy Sherman at SFAI, she only learned relatively recently that Sherman had (like her) lived on the West Side of Buffalo (at Hallwalls, as we know), whence she (Cindy) moved at age 23 to NYC in 1977, exactly the same year 3-year-old Sarah moved to Buffalo’s West Side! (I still don’t know whether Sarah knows that Sherman and the other Hallwalls co-founders famously watched Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a late-night spoof of soap operas, in their lofts on Essex Street.) 2) Sarah knew all about MAC Cosmetics, except for the only part I did know, that last year Sherman endorsed a special “Cindy Sherman” make-up line. 3) In Studs, her 2008 “remake” (makeover?) of Collins’s The Stud, Baker worked with the real Wes Studi, who had played Magua in the 1992 film of The Last of the Mohicans, but was unaware of one of Leslie Fiedler’s most famous elucidations of American high and low literature (right up there with interracial male bonding), namely the recurrent dichotomy of blonde and brunette female antagonists, as epitomized in everything from James Fenimore Cooper’s novels to Betty and Veronica of Archie comics to Dynasty’s Krystle Carrington and Alexis Colby (the latter inspired directly by sister Jackie’s Stud counterpart, The Bitch). 4) Whereas I watched Colombo and Twin Peaks when they first aired (and shunned The Love Boat and Dynasty), Baker caught up with all of them later, in reruns or on DVD box sets. And though I moved to Buffalo in 1981, and was aware of the Luke and Laura phenomenon without ever watching General Hospital, I had no idea before Sarah told me that the fictional Port Charles was supposed to be in Western New York, based in part on and situated in the vicinity of Buffalo and Niagara Falls (as Our Time is), as well as Rochester and Perry, NY.

Of course Sarah was too young in 1981 to live through Luke and Laura’s romance, engagement, and wedding, as I did live through it (albeit it only by hearsay). She was too busy going to public Montessori school on Clinton Street and taking synchronized swimming after school with coach Cindy of the Swimkins Synchronized Swimming Association of North Tonawanda, direct life experience she mixes (again, without irony) with a Jackie Collins plot in Studs. It was only later that Baker discovered the geographical sources of “Port  Charles,” on Wikipedia. And then she told me. And you can look it up yourself, too, on its own Wiki page, “Port Charles (fictional city).” And that will tell you a lot of what you need to know to understand Our Time. And, for that matter, our time.