| Ihor Holubizky
This Is The Place (1996)
on Iain Baxter and The N.E. Thing Co.
Originally published for the Art Gallery of Windsor exhibition, Iain Baxter,
Products, Place, Phenomenon: 30 March - 9 June 1996.
Subsequently shown at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 16 September 1997 - 22 February 1998. Text corrections made July 2002.
Posted with permission of the Art Gallery of Windsor
[ 4,034 words ]
In the Canadian Cultural Landscape of the 1960s — the politely modernist juried shows, biennials and society outings — Iain Baxter's N.E. Thing Co. (NETCO) initiated challenges to taste with the verve of a promotional company gone haywire. It (IT was the short-lived precursor of NETCO), touched anything and everything that the modern corporate world had to offer, flattening IT like road kill, and turning IT on its side to have a better look.
NETCO ideas were fast tracked and fast packed in plastic, vinyl and back-lit cibachromes; formed in vacuums and vacuum-formed; delivered by telephone and mail; bagged and boxed; authorized and validated like parking tickets. NETCO made full use of the tools at its disposal, be they modest — rubber stamps; state of the art — xerox, polaroids, and telecopiers (before the fax); or going where no one had gone before. (1) The strategy generated an instantaneous response of the readily-made and the readily discarded. (2) To prove that no loaf would go unbroken, NETCO served its enterprise up on a plate in their Eye Scream restaurant in Vancouver. (3) On the other side of the Rockies, Baxter concocted a cornucopia of wieners, white bread and dildos. (4) Moving east, almost 30 years later, an exhibition poster shows Baxter wearing an awkwardly dated suit — a Kirk Douglas in Tough Guys look — carrying a suitcase. (5) The entrepreneur of ideas was not done yet, becoming the penultimate carpetbagger, Tin Man and not-so holy roller. (6) He preaches to the converted and the non-converts.
Some more beginnings
Armed with a degree in Zoology, Baxter responded to an invitation to illustrate a wildlife guidebook to the Northern Rocky Mountains. (7) After a year of study in Kyoto, Japan in 1961, he was ready to scale the art world with an unlikely combination of critical tools: an understanding of the science of observation and interpretation, and an appreciation for a non Western cultural — and spiritual — insight. Western cultural — and spiritual — insight.
The landscape as place has been a critical touchstone in Baxter's endeavours, and a flurry of activity in the latter half of the 1960s. The vacuum-formed landscapes, bagged vinyl landscapes — complete with air and water — were followed by Rand McNally-style landscapes as an exhaustive documentary of topographical events through photo-map documents. Another sign of the unremarkable was a roadside sign mounted in California. The unsuspecting motorist was informed that 'you will soon pass by a 1/4 mile N.E. Thing Co. Landscape.' (8) Mirrors in a stream, a garden, and the desert, reflected the landscape back. Like Nam June Paik's TV Buddha — a Buddha statue facing a closed circuit television camera and monitor - nature was fixed in its own eternal gaze and image. (9) Baxter found 'landscapes' on the back of Canadian currency notes which he matted to cover the denominations. By obscuring the monetary value, Baxter re invested the currency with pictorial sentiment. He constructed a stud wall corner of a house with a picture window in an open field. Was there N.E. thing to block the view of the landscape beyond? In 1990s marketing jargon, it was 'house lite', all natural ingredients and less filling.
There is, in these actions and interventions, a type of self-fulfillment and endgame of gratification, as in Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. (10) Make a film about the film you're making, but don't complete (or start) the film you're purporting to make. For a delirious anti-climax, bring your cast of characters back, parading down the constructed set piece. Fade to black, then make the trailer.
Much has been said about the business of NETCO as a facsimile of corporate operation, but as with Fellini, this is also the business of the scrupulous observer. Baxter / NETCO — as did Richard Hamilton with his 'Hamilton' products, a la Braun — was both a critic and consumer, debunking and manufacturing at the same time. NETCO declared Art is All Over. Marcel Duchamp reflecting on the breakage of his Large Glass (1915-1923), said 'Now it's finished.' A self-fulfillment. (11)
If Baxter's landscape has been there from the beginning, is painting the final act? Was Fellini's Ginger and Fred in 1986 a remake or closing note to 8 1/2? The aging cast is brought back for a final spot in the limelight. A little song, a little dance. Baxter's calculation of place is invariably tied to an unrelenting play of words and shifting meanings, as Fellini played with characters and story lines. Alvin Balkind wrote, 'Not even a conversation with the Baxters proceeds along conventional lines. In such a conversation, no single direction can easily be perceived. What we get is broken field running, swerving; forays into language coinages, into new ideas, quick (and often funny) insights.' (12)
On A Clear Day
The landscape has attracted both the Sunday painter and the radical. Yet there are no Sunday minimalists. Gerhard Richter considered the idea of painting and landscape as critical to the idea of modernity. (13) Baxter's Idea of a Photograph (1970), was not a General Idea, but a specific proposition pushing the boundaries of place. (14) This should not be confused with a deception or in Hollywood terms, a prequel to the story already told. (15) Having 'paid his dues' at the radical end Baxter came to paint a landscape without working strictly for irony or strategy — that is, the verification of the pun or proposition. (16) These 'landscapes' appear genuine. It is paint — if not on canvas — painted. Some have been executed on aluminum boxes — the type that supported his back-light photographs of landscapes, or on book covers (1992-95), the type of unconscious manifestation associated with the outsider's perspective and modern artists who break rules of propriety (the importance of earnest scale) because the rules don't matter. A defining moment may be seen in Baxter's Paint into Earth from 1966 — a quart of white, outdoor paint (clean and modern), poured into a hole of one quart capacity. Nature abhors a vacuum and Baxter is ever ready. (17)
Baxter is unapologetic and isn't talking about the nature of this painting. There are apt comparisons to the silent and radical regionalism of John Marin and Milton Avery. (18) If the synthetic nature of their landscapes is a given (the consequence of considering the nature of paint), it is also a synthesis of apparent pictorial conventions (and sentiment), with the rigour of true modernists. Baxter's acrylic painting looks like acrylic — a plastic coat that speaks of his earlier plastic objects — but the brush is genuinely stroked. When he paints a sailboat on the lake, there is no question that is what he meant to paint.
John Marin agreed; 'A painted boat, however brief and symbolic the drawing, has to look like a boat. Otherwise you can't show what it does.' (19)
Baxter's Land Break (1992) — a large horizontal painting — is a late modern view framed from inside the urban bunker — a view, perhaps, born in the cultural/social xenophobia of Cold War bomb shelters of the early 1950s. The abstraction, naturally, comes with unnatural colours — a candy floss pink sky, black vinyl shoreline, and polyester blue sea. Practical, durable and having a longer shelf life. Synthetic, yet plausible. If placed next to Milton Avery's Sand, Sea and Sky (1960), connections appear — a simple geometric composition of black sea, grey sky and pastel, hospital yellow sand. Baxter's wedge of black 'land break' is the wedge of black sea in Avery's painting, but not the Black Sea.
On the issue of colour and nature, John Marin agreed, 'Sometimes, I like to paint a red ocean ... a red ocean with motion will look more like the sea than a patch of grey paint without movement.' (20) Marin also let black stand for red. Synthetic, yet plausible.
A pictorial truth can be far from the truth, or taste. As Avery and Marin questioned the absolute authority of colour to representation — green for grass, blue for sky, and so on, Piet Mondrian abhorred green because nature and its greening had no place in his art. (21)
If Baxter has come full circle by painting the much painted landscape, he continues to orbit his own state of awareness, verifying what we should have known all along: the landscape can be general (and generalized), and painting (the system) be simple.
Nature abhors a vacuum and Baxter is still busy cleaning house.
THE NAME IS THE PLACE, THE PLACE IS THE NAME
(He drives, she talks, he talks, she drives] (2)
Baxter's current exhibition title may lead us to believe that he is now engaged in distinct propositions — products, place, and phenomenon. Yet, nothing is so simple in Baxter's schemata. Place can be connected to product — the painting as object and the commodified object in the (art) market place to be placed in a home, and above a sofa. This too, Baxter has done with A Painting to Match the Couch (1974-75). It is not a painting at all, but a photograph of the couch below — a sickly double vision of insane suburban conventions.
The One Canada video (1992-6), a joint project by Iain and Louise Baxter, is the commonplace trip — as common as the potato's trip to the couch, and executed by the most transparent of processes. A video camcorder placed on the dashboard of a car and was set to record mode during a motor trip across Canada, from Sea to Shining Sea. (23) It is a point of view; cyclopic in its consumption, what lies ahead and what is always on the horizon. Like the plein air sketch of the Impressionist painters, it is true to place, difference, and the moment. The replay is the play of place — the projected image as a rear view mirror view ... or a bug squashed on the windshield. The car parked in the gallery is a product to be seen and scrutinized, admired and desired. The other product — the phenomenon of image on product — is a foil, not a trompe l'oeil. Baxter lays everything bare. The video projector can be seen, the vellum taped to the windshield, and resolution of the projection — all dead give-aways. But we can still make the leap, connecting these elements to a plausible experience — compelling and soothing. Step in, relax, and leave the driving to us. Everything lies ahead. At this moment — the moment of least resistance — the extraordinary takes place. We begin to believe what we want to believe. In the words of African American singer, Leon Thomas, we are about to embark on the journey, 'from places to places, oasis to oasis.' (24)
The One Canada video enters car culture, road mythology, and surveillance technology. We depart. The names of towns are rhymed off. We arrive. If nothing happens on Route 66, there are 'road pictures' where nothing happens except the obvious and where the obvious assumes the absurd — the dyspeptic visions of Stranger Than Paradise and Leningrad Cowboys Go America. ( (26)
The Baxters add a twist ... car radio audio, not only to complete the deception, but to complete the link to the modern road myth and any variant we wish to "hear" or receive.
Cruisin' and playing the radio ... (27)
As with much of NETCO/Baxter's endeavours, there is a poignant counterpart. A Great Lake (1996) replaces the immersive videoscape with a loosely painted canvas, loosely hung. The car has been replaced by a bicycle, a sad looking proletarian bicycle, standing in front. To take this trip around the lake, slowly, painfully, is to be in no particular hurry.
... With no particular place to go (27)
Expressing no particular place to go, however, is tantamount to admitting a lesser intent. Jan van der Marck, writing on the systemic work of François Morellet addressed 'the problem of taking art seriously,' and the artist's dilemma of doing as little as possible — the coil of conceptual activity. The four options were: 1. Stop working 2. Present ready-mades 3. Reduce art to its minimum 4. Propose simple systems. (28) Morellet rejected the first two because they had been preempted by Duchamp, and feared that the third had become a convention of deferring to the reductivist work of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. (29)
This left the fourth option as the least objectionable. For Morellet and his system, the viewer not only receives and recognizes, but acts within and completes the creative cycle. So too, with Baxter's flow.
Baxter's notion of place flows in and out of his product still lifes. They could be read as material curiosity, consumer critique or purgatory, in a long line of artist inquiries — from the pictorial typography of Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, and Stuart Davis to the object assemblages of Andy Warhol, Muntadas and Haim Steinbach. (30) Baxter's still life products are distinct in their matter-of-factness, imbued with a sense of cultural place (the super market, the office supply mega-store), and a place in late 20th century culture. The Dutch still life of the 17th and 18th century — the cornucopia of fruit — is replaced, in one instance, by an offering of household poisons, Killer Still Life (1994). Nature mort becomes the promise of life suspended. On the other hand, Baxter's bale of stuffed plush animals is not a version of road kill, but efficiently — if inelegantly — packed for transport from one place to another in geographic terms, or from new goods (the pride of consumerism) to cast-off (charity).
Lucy Lippard used the phrase 'artless' in describing NETCO's ruthless and systematic accumulation and identification. (31) Nothing was too ordinary or mundane to escape attention. Artless perhaps, but not without clear and direct intent. Not overtly crude, as a strategy, but there to lure us into believing that sentiment prevails and that its nature cannot be denied. Baxter's paintings embrace the inconsistencies of representation, picture and place, harkening back to his photographic work. Shift (1968), shows the lurid, postcard perfection of a setting sun. The framed one thousand dollar bill was transformed into an unmemorable and monochromatic view, as if a one dollar greeting card. Nancy Shaw wrote of the 'expanded landscapes' of NETCO and considered the Baxter/NETCO landscape as reflecting, among other things, the industry of landscape, promoted by Government for tourism and leisure. (32) The titles that Baxter offers for his paintings have the label of a generic promotion and a simple system of belief — Westcoast Landscape, Eastern Landscape, Alpine Landscape — or the industry of images for Mount Fuji in Japan, or N.E. thing landscapes.
Musthaf been the right place, Musthaf been the wrong time. (33)
Lucy Lippard didn't touch the half of it. There is yet another place proposed by Baxter, Techno Compost, (1996) — an ironic reflection consistent with the articles of NETCO's incorporation document of 16 January 1969:
Techno Compost actualizes these objectives within an ubiquitous chainlink enclosure, a vulgarized Noah's Ark in the mall. (35) Baxter invites all to bring their tired, weary and discarded goods — computers, toasters, lamps, televisions, musical instruments — things no longer recognizable, or whose function can no longer be unraveled in the clamour and tumult of art in everyday life. (36)
The decision to discard something is far from being a simple decision. Like each fundamental type of action, it appears in the experience of every day. It is a reversal of values. Though the thing once was necessary, discarded it becomes litter or scrap. What once was valuable now is worthless; the desirable now offends; the beautiful now is seen as ugly. (37)
The location of the place is the mall, where we come to replace these discarded objects. But the promise of endless pleasure, comfort, consumption, and distraction cannot be extracted from this compost. By the same token, it is untrue to its name. The goods are in stasis, a limbo, and will never return to their base components, metals, or minerals. As a place, the Techno Compost is part of life's mystery — and in this case, the white elephant burial grounds. Given our limitless industrial machine, Baxter's place could be expanded to gigantic proportions — to the compass points, or straight up to reach the moon and beyond. Imagine a trashway to the stars.
Baxter has orchestrated the Techno Compost with glee. He asks that we give him everything we don't want and he will make a place for it.
Whose place is this? (38)
Originally published for the Art Gallery of Windsor exhibition, Iain Baxter,
Products, Place, Phenomenon: 30 March - 9 June 1996. Subsequently shown at
the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 16 September 1997 - 22 February 1998. Text
corrections made July 2002. Posted with permission of the Art Gallery of
Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.
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