Considerations about the Vancouver School and photoconceptualism have seemed ubiquitous in Chicago during these recent winter months, from the Rodney Graham show at Donald Young, to the ambitious “Light Years” show at the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition on Ron Terada shown across the hall from IAIN BAXTER&. BAXTER& remains an elusive, trickster figure, one with deep historical influence but whose position is sometimes easily lost from our current moment.
Walking through IAIN BAXTER&’s first retrospective is occasionally reminiscent of, at least for me, watching a pioneering New Wave film like Godard’s Breathless and consistently appreciating its progressiveness. There’s the unmistakable feel of something radical happening in the work, but because so much of its method has been taken up by other artists to the point that it feels natural and everyday, you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re seeing a watershed moment — or, in BAXTER&’s case, a multiplicity of different groundbreaking moments that paved the way for the Vancouver School, much of contemporary photoconceptualism, and Conceptualism writ large, not to mention the self-identity of the artist, as we know it.
This is to say that BAXTER&’s relationship to art production is familiar to anyone paying attention to major tropes in contemporary art, ranging from art that makes strong institutional critiques while also capitalizing on that critique (figured in BAXTER&’s extremely funny ART/ACT sticker works), to work reconfiguring the relationship between artist and audience (the ampersand at the end of his name was added to emphasize the artist's collaboration with the viewer) and sharply challenging the role of the artist—he famously incorporated himself and his erstwhile wife as the N.E. Thing Company Ltd. long before you could make an LLC out of anything and seems to have been the first artist to do so. Formally, much of BAXTER&’s work has become what we might call “mainstreamed," like the light box photographs using transparencies that referenced then-contemporary advertising , but which are now ubiquitous in contemporary art photography. BAXTER&’s post-medium, anti-authorial methods have become iconic, rather than any of the work itself.
N.E. Baxter Thing Co., Bagged Landscape with Water, 1966. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H.A. Malcolmson, 1985. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario.
But if you can suspend looking back from the current day’s proliferation of BAXTER&’s challenges to art, the conceptual photographs and installations seem more uncanny than familiar as at first blush. What the show's organization underscores beautifully is the constant evolution of the artist’s thought, from his early ecological photographs borne from field studies (BAXTER& began as a zoologist, and his environmental concerns are the place to find the pulse of the work), to the plastic paintings in the early sixties, whose packaged worlds make arguments about consumer culture and the role of art as a commodity that are still fresh and astonishing.
Wandering through the exhibit and watching BAXTER& take on appropriation art, play with corporate personhood, and explore the potential of commercial photographic methods feels like being in an immersive biopic of contemporary art. At moments it’s hard not to feel like artists after BAXTER& must have just been running behind picking up the pieces of the ideas he discarded as he continued changing methods and mediums. And it’s just as easy to imagine BAXTER& as a kind of sci-fi art soothsayer, predicting theoretical and art market moves that are still in play now.
Increasing this sense of the show as a history of the contemporary in miniature, BAXTER& creates conversations in his work with artists from Donald Judd and Robert Smithson to Ellsworth Kelly.
IAIN BAXTER&, Pneumatic Judd, 1965. Collection of the artist. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario.
Often these allusions feel cynical; when he makes plastic inflatable versions of minimalist sculpture or a copy of a Rothko painting with plastic and cotton flocking, is BAXTER& exploring, celebrating, or just teasing, even scorning, the artists who came before him? And that’s where the discomfort of the show’s uncanniness comes in: BAXTER&’s work from the sixties through the eighties work with photography and mirrors often feels cold and even cynical. How else to characterize an artist seemingly bent on undermining art itself?
This tension drives the heart of the retrospective and thus to some extent the body of work: on one hand, a kind of free-floating cynicism about the art world, and the social world more generally, and on the other hand, BAXTER&’s consistent passion for environmentalism and some kind of natural world. Rounding the corner from the Bagged Rothko into the last room in the show, containing work from the last decade or so, an installation of taxidermy animals plugging long exhaust pipes is shocking and poignant, both a reference to Annette Messager’s similar piece and an impassioned, grotesque condemnation of pollution.
IAIN BAXTER&, Zero Emissions, 2008. Collection of the artis. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario. ©2011 IAIN BAXTER&.
BAXTER&’s recent work echoes some of this pathos, particularly his work exploring the relationship between new media and art, like a painting with engraved binary numbers that suggest all art can be replaced with digital information.
And the easy visual satisfaction of a group of painted televisions from the early 2000s, with static peeking out through the surface landscape images, betrays an anxiety about the future — both for nature and human — that’s deeply moving, whereas some of the earlier conceptual work is merely interesting and intellectually impressive.
-Monica Westin, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(Image at top: IAIN BAXTER&, Television Works (detail), 1999-2006. Promised gift of Yvonne and David Fleck, Steven and Michael Latner Families, and Eleanor and Francis Shen. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario. ©2011 IAIN BAXTER&.)
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