The six watercolors that greet the viewer when they enter “loose change,” Monika Baer’s second exhibition at Greene Naftali, offer a pared-down introduction to the artist’s habit of combining heterogeneous elements within the space of a single picture. In one sense, these modestly sized paintings are straightforward: splotchy pools of pigment on chunky paper with a few coins glued to their surfaces, sometimes in little clusters. The painted bits look casual, loosely composed, and unselfconscious. Faint lines meander through The Grove (2021) with such ease that they almost resemble accidental scratches from a bracelet or the dull end of a tool. Two of these works have fragments of small sawblades screwed into their surfaces. The watery dabs of paint in Loose Change (2021) seem not to notice the menacing metal teeth less than an inch away, whose rusted tips look weary but fierce. The literal and symbolic density of these metallic intruders contrasts strongly with the soft haze of the watercolor passages. At first it seems like the only relationship these chunks of metal have with the paint is that a few of the coins overlap with the colors.

Face Up (2021) contains a loose wash of pale blue that fills the page unevenly. On each of the long edges, Baer attached a dime such that it hangs over the edge of the sheet like a small magnet holding a postcard to the refrigerator door. The copper pennies in The Grove (2021) cast tiny halos of warm light above their shiny edges, and this curious glow made me reconsider the relationship of these seemingly distinct parts. Coins represent a high concentration of symbolic value, while these puddles of pigment occupy a diffuse state: perhaps a difference in energy level is all that distinguishes the two materials. After all, many blue and green pigments come from oxidized copper. Even in these works on paper, Baer carefully modulates the magnitude of her gestures by changing the intensity of their physical presence and referential capacity—a technique used to more complex ends in the works in the main gallery.

Most of the oil paintings evenly spaced on the walls of this large, airy room depict variations on a simple if puzzling scenario. A single tree trunk emerges from behind a low horizontal wall with its bark peeling away. Some of these trees are tall stumps and some continue out of frame. Strange details twist these images away from the literal and familiar representation of trees and nature, and the effect of these elegant deviations is quietly unsettling. The bark in one of five paintings named Yet to be titled (all dated 2020) is heavily stylized at times, and a few fallen pieces resemble crumpled bills of paper money lying atop a grey wall. Beneath the peeling skin, what should be wood is instead a smooth pink cylinder that evokes both the elegance of pure form and the pain of raw flesh. Set against a shimmering blue sky with diagonal lines of raking light and pale yellow and peach-colored flurries, the atmosphere is at once idyllic and ominous. Is the tree dying or thriving amidst this saccharine ether? What is the cost of this fantasy? A bold pink stain leaches out from the middle of the trunk, bleeding beautifully into the air.

Baer ratchets up the dissonance in another Yet to be titled work by adding a white teardrop that reads as a bit of trompe l’oeil handiwork from afar, but is actually ridged foam that protrudes from the canvas. On the other side of the tree, a delicate sketch in crayon shows a face in profile. We don’t get many details beyond the angular nose, closed mouth, and slightly furrowed brow. The flatness of this caricature pulls against the bulbous volume of the teardrop. On the adjacent wall, Introduction (Zur Einführung) (2021) features three large matchsticks floating in the lower right corner of a canvas filled with a pinkish wash. These slender sticks are almost a foot long and painted with stunning precision. Nearer to the center of the painting, pale green and grey dots form a pointillist cloud with a vertical axis and many faint lines radiating outward from its core. The checklist indicates that this work contains ash and fuchsite—an emerald stone—in addition to conventional paint. This detail heightens the significance of the matchsticks and brings wildfires and partisan warfare to mind (the match tips are either red or blue). The incendiary potential of these matches looms threateningly as a cool green haze that spreads out into the warm, churning ground—a gorgeous mirage.

At a time when many painters anchor their work in specific histories, nameable causes, or politicized identities, Baer stands out for her insistence that painting need not derive its force from a cohesive agenda. By continually adjusting the specificity of her language, she undercuts the authority of each picture while simultaneously heightening its impact. This willful contamination of symbols sabotages any attempt to decipher her intentions directly. It requires of viewers that we become more agile, preventing us from utilizing the perceptual shortcuts formed by habituation to image-based culture. Refusing reductive interpretation constitutes a politics in an era of unprecedented visual manipulation. With this exhibition, Baer continues to escalate the stakes of her project—allowing us to savor the abundance of visual pleasure available amidst this silent turbulence without neutralizing the conflicts that produce it.