I walked into Platform Gallery last week and was flabbergasted to find an arrangement of five carved alabaster pillows in two rows. They flung me back a few years to a bar called Tommy Gun, a dimly lit place on Capitol Hill. It was a time in my life when I was suddenly alone, and I didn't know where I was going to live anymore or with whom. I was sitting at the bar trying not to think about it.
Then I noticed this tiny drawing in the newspaper of two rows of pillows, and I tore it out. Albrecht Dürer made the drawing in 1493. He didn't title it—just referred to it as six studies of pillows and drew it on the back of another sketch. The pillows made me cry. They were so personal. Pillows take your shape; your pillow is only yours. These particular little sketched pillows somehow confirmed for me in that moment what I'd been trying to avoid noticing: that too many bad things had happened on my pillows, and I was going to have to throw them out and start all over again.
Debra Baxter's work at Platform Gallery is a reproduction of Dürer's drawing. Every fold, every dimple, every scrunched-up bit is there. She pored over the drawings, blew up photocopies of each of the pillows, and projected the images onto hundred-pound blocks of alabaster. Polished alabaster gleams. It has a wet look. Baxter's pillows resemble dumplings. She labored outdoors, even in the rain, wore a mask, and still got gravely ill, her asthmatic lungs full of mineral dust, her doctors warning her off art.
Baxter used to make sculptures out of inflatables, and fabric, and words she wrote in the snow. She went to Bard for grad school, a prestigious place, where her teacher was Rachel Harrison, a great maker of messy, lumpy sculpture. Baxter's work used to be lumpier.
"Did I switch teams?" Baxter wondered aloud to me in the gallery.
If so, it wasn't intentional. In addition to her pillows, she's showing smaller pieces, crystals and rocks that combine in various ways with sculpted forms in bronze and concrete, cast iron and aluminum. It's easy to dismiss this work. High-end retail has somehow become a haven for objets made of crystals and metals. A few years ago, a Parisian trend forecaster—"a psychic for trends," Baxter explained—called Baxter and wanted one of her pieces for a showroom of high-end design. But Baxter isn't chasing a trend. She's been fascinated with rocks forever.
Still, Matt Browning, a very conceptual artist, declared her work unfit for a progressive contemporary art gallery a few years ago. Writer D.W. Burnam wrote an essay defending the work's integrity, saying that it hovered between market and institution, flash and canon. I agree with Burnam, but I'm glad Browning pressed the issue. Not all of Baxter's works get me, but some certainly do, and even those make me a little anxious. I'm not sure why, but I get the sense she feels the same way. With the pillows, plenty of people warned her that a display of classical skill wasn’t enough, to be careful to distract from it. Even she worried about making an unironic copy without adding some extra idea—say, the pillows adding up to the weight of her and her fiancé. But arranging the pillows in rows the way he did just felt right, so she went with it. Her only obvious departure from Dürer is that while he drew six pillows, she left one missing, and there’s a felt emptiness.
In a case by the front door of Platform Gallery, there's a demented sculpture of an amethyst that looks like a bashed-in head. It's set on a cast-iron bust and enclosed by a cage of bars. It's called Head Like a Hole. Is that artier than the pillows because it's scarier, or less deferential to the past? I wish it were lumpier.
Someone once told me that desire for something is not longing, but the opposite of having. Something at the middle of what Dürer made is lost and longed for, only hinted at in the missing pillow.
Baxter titled her labor of love Soft Landing (or crashing and burning)—two titles, really. Maybe she's trying to figure out which it is. I like that.