Los Angeles

Iain Baxter

Gallery 669

Iain Baxter, or, as he advertises himself, the N. E. Thing Company, is back in Los Angeles this year with five new “inflatables” at the Gallery 669. Judging alone from this exhibition, or even from his appearances here collectively, it would be awfully difficult to understand the claims that some seem to be making for him as single-handedly providing witness of a sudden great swell of fresh and serious artistic talent in Western Canada. This phenomenon becomes slightly more comprehensible when one grasps the indefatigability with which the N. E. Thing Co. is promoting itself as the quintessence of ingenuity, wit and playful outrageousness. Real doubt creeps in at the point where one realizes that inarguable originality is equally held as self-evident by the Company, which now counts at least eight departments (Thing, COP, Projects, Publications, Research, Consulting, Photographic and Service), but is still looking to become incorporated. On the other hand, little pretense to discrimination is upheld; rather, the Company’s projects appear to be proliferating wildly in all directions. Proposed activities include photograph and film compendia, anonymous publication of work by various poets, philosophers and what have you, dress design and distribution, think sessions with international Great Minds and, not to be forgotten, the invention, fabricating and circulation of art works. The COP branch, or its expressed function, is an undeniably clever institution, and might, given precedence, rescue the Company as a whole from pedestrianism. The basic idea here is to create art works which are “extensions” (or subtly modified travesties) of other art works; an example is the “Olitski overlay,” a sheet of slightly inflected plastic which the cop-artist places over the original painting, thereby, among other things, temporarily usurping it.

Briefly, the five works are all made of colored or clear vinyl, inflated and hung from pipes against the walls or sitting on the floor. The best one is called Inflated Hillscape; it is 11' x 14' x 3 1/2', deep pink on top and green below, as it is installed here (it can, according to the artist, be hung in different positions, and not necessarily against a wall). The reasons this piece succeeds better than the others, abstractly or otherwise, are that it is large enough to be virtually enveloping, deep enough and puffy enough to be grossly, comically voluptuous and uncomplicated enough to be all there at a glance. It contains tacit references to painting, recent sculpture and abstractness in general—all ironical and all unobvious. As the others of this selection are more detailed, or flabbier, or, strangely enough, more sophisticated, so are they less interesting. Inflated Oceanscape has all these qualities to a high degree; it is the closest work here to Baxter’s previous water- and object-filled plastic-bag landscapes, but for some reason it looks flat and trivial now in a way the others didn’t when I saw them over a year ago.

Baxter must have chosen to work with soft, inflatable materials (and to inflate them) at least partly because he saw himself, rightly, as from the beginning allied to the Pop artists and to the California funk artists. If he were really as eccentric as his work tries to convince us he is, or even half as often as truly witty as his precursors, Warhol and Oldenburg, the peculiar combination in him of landscape painter, anthropomorphic sculptor, satirical iconographer and entrepreneur might coalesce into something less inane than the present show, and perhaps in time this will indeed happen. Occasionally, as in some of his vacuum-formed works, the wire fence idea and the COP Department, he shows us possibilities for things considerably intriguing. It is tempting to speculate, however, that the N.E. Thing Co. has already gone in too many directions ever to quite pull itself together. It may just be the president’s misfortune to have arrived too late, or too soon, on the scene.

Jane Livingston