Juxtaposing California: Caroline Baudinet’s ‘Feelings’ at ArtAbout Davis

Poster for Caroline Baudinet's exhibition "Feelings"

Homeland Security has a hard time buying Caroline Baudinet’s love for the West Coast. Arriving in San Francisco last week, the French artist said she was interrogated about her repeated visits to California. In her jeans, black work boots, and black leather jacket, Baudinet reenacts the scene with the humorless officials at SFO: Where are you going? Who are you staying with? How do you know these people? We are browsing at Riki Design in downtown Davis, where her photographs will be part of the Davis ArtAbout, and I’m noticing how customers stop to listen to her cut-gravel French accent. It’s hard to imagine the outspoken Baudinet playing the part of the obeisant tourist, but she assures me she kept her tongue in check so that she wouldn’t miss the opening of “Feelings,” her California debut.

The love affair with America started when Caroline was a teenager, and her father’s role in the Orchestre National de France provided her with several opportunities to visit the States. On her first trip to New York City, Baudinet insisted the family explore Harlem and the Bronx, as well as the usual tourist traps. She describes how her uncle locked the doors of the car when she tried to photograph black men rapping on the streets.

However, it was a three-week long vacation on the golden coast some years later that made the artist consider California as a second home. She lists the places she visited, many of which I haven’t seen in my three years of living here, from San Diego to Yosemite to Lake Tahoe. Immediately, she felt an affinity for California, “New York is like Paris,” she says, “It’s a big international city. You travel on the subway and nobody talks to anyone. But here there is so much space, there is sunshine. It is easy to talk to people, and I love to talk to people!”

As a freelance graphic designer, Baudinet has been able to make three tours of the West Coast in the last year with her camera and MacBook, pausing along the way to send assignments back to France for luxury brands like Shiseido and Olympus. You can see how her experience designing for commercial media influences the composition and production of the series, which combines images and text in the manner of a glossy magazine. “I like typography,” says Baudinet, “and architecture; I like to look at a building and think, someone designed that.”

However, while Baudinet utilizes some of the tropes of advertising, the overall effect undermines, even deconstructs, the motive of selling these familiar spots as “destinations.” The iconic image of a lifeguard tower in Malibu is recast as ghostly, and in the corner of a photograph of a bustling boulevard in Venice, a sign reads “IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT,” provoking the reader to remember the rest of the phrase and the people who’ve fallen through the cracks in the star-maker machinery of Hollywood. Juxtaposition is the dominant mode of the series, a method for the artist to work through her often conflicted feelings about these spaces. “I love the U.S.,” she says. “I love to visit, but I would not like to live here.”

It is fitting then that two images of Paris serve as a coda to the show, which will hang at Riki for the month of March. It is the contrast between these two places that so clearly energizes the photographer. The genius of Baudinet’s show is how she forces us to see the familiar in a new light, so that the experience of the show is akin to walking these sites with her as she points out the texture of paint peeling from an old building, or the geometry of an overpass.

A reception for Caroline Baudinet’s exhibition, part of The Second Friday ArtAbout, will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 9 at Riki Design, 202 E. Street, Davis.

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