This 2008 work is a mirror image of a 2004 untitled composition showing a woman lighting a cigarette at a dinner table while her neckline is open to reveal
This 2008 work is a mirror image of a 2004 untitled composition showing a woman lighting a cigarette at a dinner table while her neckline is open to reveal a landscape, only here she is unscrolling above a spider web cutout. (Courtesy Williams Colkege Museum of Art / Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Monika Baer's paintings and drawings at the Williams College Museum of Art may vex or seduce us, but won't leave us indifferent. The visual dramas she creates have no clear narratives. Her canvases morph into sculptures. Her pictures are both representational and abstract; controlled and yet spontaneous. The 50-year-old Berlin-based artist has staked out an approach that is inventive, distinctive and challenging with its calculated enigmas.

Organized by Lisa Dorin, WCMA's director for curatorial affairs, the exhibition is a collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, where Dorin held a similar post until last year and where the show opened last fall. It will be at WCMA through May 18.

"[Baer] is always asking," Dorin said in a Chicago interview, "Is it even possible to make a painting anymore? And she attempts to answer that question with every painting that she makes. It's a complicated project, and it's hard to put language to it."

So it is.

Baer came of age as an artist in Germany in the late 1980s when Conceptual / Performance Art was already history, but still exerted power; when photo imagery was gaining currency as an art medium; and when the future of traditional painting was an open question.

Although the exhibition groups similar works together regardless of date, making it difficult to follow Baer's artistic journey, her output shows these early multiple influences and how she stretches painting's traditional formats. She cuts holes and patterns in her canvases, glues objects to the edges of them, and combines illusory and abstract styles in single paintings.

Her visual repertoire includes sleeping figures, liquor and pill bottles, cigarettes, playing cards, currency, spider webs and photocopies of people, advertisements and news events. In the 50 works on view spanning two decades, she uses these images -- drawn, painted, cut out or as actual objects -- to create alternate realities glimpsed as openings in or attachments to the picture plane. The tension between what is illusory and what isn't pulls us in or shuts us out depending on how open we are to unanswered questions.

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Try to pick up and follow the thread of a narrative and you will find yourself in a maze with no exit. Two big untitled canvases from 1997, for example, show a small boy playing a keyboard instrument before a fashionably dressed audience in an 18th century salon. It is a clear reference to child prodigy composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But a closer look shows the performance is a marionette show with the figures suspended from strings and the period wall murals dissolving into a riot of colors. The Mozart artworks are meant to be theatrical, but beyond that, Baer leaves us on our own.

Other large-scale paintings have paper currency, coins and slices of sausage meat tumbling through vaporously painted clouds and spatters of color; or lengths of chain swinging against brick walls slashed with white paint and graffiti; or disembodied faces hovering in flat or illusory space. It is theater without a story line; stagecraft as an end it itself.

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Her drawings, each meant to be a finished rather than a preparatory piece, are similarly layered with illusory, often photocopied images embedded among collaged abstract shapes and patterns.

One 2004 untitled composition, for example, has a black-and-white photocopy of a woman lighting a cigarette at a dinner table, while her neckline is open to reveal a landscape. A 2008 drawing using the same photocopy, but in a mirror image, has the woman unscrolling above a spider web cutout.

Baer's artworks twist conventional ideas of painting, hint at stories that aren't there, and throw up roadblocks to any search for answers.

In that, they can become addictive dilemmas.