IAIN BAXTER&: 1N4ØRMAT1ØN
Calgary is a city better known for its annual stampede than art. But recently, on a brief trip to the city affectionately called “Cowtown”, we stopped at the Glenbow to see a delightful show of works by one of the founding fathers of conceptual art in Canada – Iain BAXTER&. We recently had the pleasure of seeing his solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and while the Glenbow’s presentation was more compact, it was just as compelling with its exploration encompassing a raucously diverse range of media – from a painting on a large-screen TV, stuffed animals in jars, lightboxes, to an area rug – of BAXTER&’s enduring interest in the natural world and our fraught relationship to it. Encompassing the entirety of his career, from a very early realist drawing called Puffins Parley, 1958, completed while the artist was still studying zoology at the University of Idaho, to works completed this year, the show deftly captures BAXTER&’s deep conceptual roots, his clever handling of media and its messaging, as well as his pointed concern for our environment.
Even before entering the show, we were confronted with a sign explaining the addition of the ampersand to the artist’s name. BAXTER&’s account also lends considerable insight into the major theme of the exhibition: connectivity, both to the world around us and between life and art. In 2005, the artist decided to add the & to his name “to signify my belief that art & life are constantly about new &s & our connectivity to everything in the world…Not only does it connect words together in the literal sense, it also connects people and ideas…As an artist, I have worked with information for years as a way to see how our world is really & totally a landscape of information.” Having trademarked the “&” symbol in 2011, and true to his belief that life and art are irrevocably intertwined, BAXTER& displays his letter from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office as a lightbox on view in the exhibition.
Although BAXTER&’s message is a solemn one, as a master of communication, he manages to convey it with humour and sly wit. In Our world needs a GREEN SWEEP, 2009, he presents the head of a broom in oversized plastic packaging embossed with the title of the work; the irony is not lost. Landscape, 1990 consists of a monumental painted landscape inset with a small television – a strange convergence since these two forms of expression rarely coincide so closely. The painted scenery that surrounds the monitor references paint-by-numbers type works of idealized views sold to decorate homes. “Television is the landscape of our lives now,” BAXTER& states, urging the viewer to consider mass consumerism in society and the way it populates our literal and metaphoric field of vision. Nowhere is his debt to Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “the medium is the message” more clear than in Rocky mountain landscape, 2012, where the artist has painted a 60” TV with the titular scene and sunset; the TV plays “snow” which dances on the illuminated screen, bringing the painting to life. In BAXTER&’s view, nature is now an experience often mediated both through consumerism and the media.
Having now seen two solo shows of the artist’s work in close succession, we can testify that BAXTER&’s work curiously defies categorization since he is not loyal to any particular materials and he unites an eclectic conglomeration of references including Group of Seven paintings of the Canadian wilderness, Duchampian readymades, and Minimalism. Shelflife, 2007-2012 is a large-scale installation consisting of floor-to-ceiling shelving stocked with large, blue tote boxes of the common household variety used to store odds and ends in the basement. In this work, fashioned from stoic, repetitive found objects, he has created a testament to our (over)consumption and with its title, reminds us that this, too, must come to an end. In A world of information, 2010-2012, the artist has painted over a map of the world with a digital conversion code. It literally illustrates that we receive information both from the natural world and the human-generated one and is a testament to his belief that “art is all over.” These recent works demonstrate that BAXTER&’s persistent experimentation grounded by conceptual rigour and coupled with his droll sense of humour, have kept his work relevant and interesting for more than 50 years – no small feat.