Paint by Numbers: The Art of Reginald Baylor |
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Paint by Numbers: The Art of Reginald Baylor

Reginald Baylor, Ascending or Descending (detail), Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, 2008. Reprinted courtesy of the artist.
Reginald Baylor, Ascending or Descending (detail), Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, 2008. Reprinted courtesy of the artist.

It’s cold. The kind of cold where you breathe in gasps. I’m in Milwaukee to meet and take photos of up-and-coming painter Reginald Baylor, and all I can think is, I should have worn a warmer coat.

Clouds of exhalation form cartoon-like thought bubbles over Baylor’s head. We chat about architecture as we walk to Design Within Reach, a store that features affordable reproductions of Mid-century Modern furniture a few blocks from his artist studio in Milwaukee’s trendy Third Ward neighborhood, and Baylor offers a seeming non sequitur: “There will come a day when you won’t be able to find a gallery in this neighborhood,” he says with a wry smile as he points to various buildings along the way.

It’s a strange thing to hear from an artist. Before I can ask why the expulsion of galleries from a neighborhood that is largely dependent on its “arty” image would be a good thing, Baylor swings open the heavy wooden doors to Design Within Reach. Inside what appears to be a rehabbed warehouse, an admixture of Cubist lamps, engineered end tables, and chairs that look as if they were plucked from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise huddle in strategic groupings.

Then I see why he brought me here. In this land of angular, almost architectural, design the line is king; And the six-foot-four Baylor, with his regal bearing, is viceroy. His original, large-scale works hang on broad expanses of exposed-brick wall. While both the paintings and assemblage of furniture share a high-design aesthetic, the paintings—featuring a stained glass-style composition with clean lines and eye-popping graphic elements—stand out from the austerity of Nelson coconut chairs and Van der Rohe daybeds. Pop Culture is ever-present in Baylor’s work, as is a sense of glorified, almost exalted, suburbia. His portrait and group paintings are especially provocative, playing both with black and white racial stereotypes, as well as teasing the viewer with associated (if somewhat warped) cultural imagery.

Recalling the hodgepodge of framed paintings, sketches, and collages I had seen crowding the walls of a Third Ward bistro a few hours earlier, it dawns on me what Baylor meant when he proclaimed the eventual demise of the gallery: No longer is the artist in isolation, hoping to curry favor with a gatekeeper who will allow their vision to reach the public. Visual art galleries are an endangered species because, like record stores and travel agencies, the question of access is being rendered largely moot by the instant interconnectivity of the Internet and by symbi-otic commercial relationships. Restaurants and boutiques need visual art to give texture and meaning to their environment, and visual artists need an accessible space where the public can engage with their work. Bingo.

I go and check out another example of Baylor’s art-is-where-you-make-it philosophy at Milwaukee’s historic Pfister Hotel, where the artist is finishing up a one year artist-in-residence program. The residency offers an open studio and provides interaction with hotel clientele. The brainchild of Pfister general manager Joe Kurth, the residency allows patrons the experience of participating in “the art of making art.” And this is no problem for the gregarious Baylor, who relishes his role as both host and star attraction—no easy job.

His canvases are large; his process painstaking and meticulous. It can take as much as eight months to complete a work. Each line must be hand drawn, and the negative spaces numbered to correspond to a particular color (all of which he mixes by hand). The lines are carefully painted, then covered after drying with infuriatingly thin slivers of masking tape before the negative space can be filled with bright acrylic.

As he works, Baylor says wants to move more into iconography, taking images and producing them in different media—leather or punched tin—to see how they translate. He best likes the drawing part of the process, and hopes to someday shift his role from laborer to architect, creating larger hand-drawn images that he can number for color and pass along to others to fill in accordingly. For me, it is difficult to conceive of putting my heart and soul into a piece—to conceive, draft, and number every piece of a work—only to have someone else complete it. But, like the sly allusions and clever metaphors that burst forth from Baylor’s work, it hits me all at once and I laugh: Paint by numbers.

Photos by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

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Born in Milwaukee in 1966, Reginald Baylor favors painting with acrylics on canvas but has made excursions into other media.  His work has been exhibited in museums with increasing frequency since 2004, and continues to evolve stylistically.

From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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