New York

Glen Baxter

Lombard-Fried Projects

GLEN BAXTER'S WORK hasn't changed much, happily, since he last showed it in New York, fifteen years ago; he remains one of the few artists who will make you burst out laughing, or at least who will do so on purpose. And his devices to manage this trick haven't changed much either. What I had forgotten, though, after years of seeing his images only in reproduction, was how pretty they are in the flesh.

Baxter grew up in Yorkshire in the '40s and '50s, and his work is suffused with the England of way back when. It is as deeply English as the work of Robert Crumb is deeply American—Crumb being another artist whose sharply humorous book- and magazine-based uses of image and text have made him a reputation as a cartoonist, but whose images bloom in gallery display. The two are also about the same age (Crumb was born in 1943, Baxter in '44), but while Crumb will forever be linked to the popular counterculture of the '60s, Baxter neither published nor exhibited until the following decade. Yet his work, if sunnier, is no less subversive, for while it is rooted in a stiff-upper-lip, jolly-hockey-sticks land of Britain, it shows that world completely undone.

In interviews Baxter likes to mention Dada and Surrealism, and his pictures are as illogical as those references suggest. But if the Dadaists kicked off against the weight of the Wilhelmine empire and World War I with a certain bitter anger, Baxter seems to dance under the burden of Victorian and colonial England. His pictures are funnily fond, and only a few degrees dottier than the dottiest of Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard—from one of whose novels I swear I remember the line “'Run for your lives!' I shouted in Arabic,” which: is about as close to a Baxterism as a sentence can get without being one. Baxter also plainly loves British children's comics of doddery vintage, as well as Hollywood juvenilia of the Lone Ranger/Hopalong Cassidy variety. All these remained staples of English boyhood long after he grew up.

This exhibition deemphasized Baxter's amused Anglophilia in favor of his tastes—often expressed simultaneously—for art history and cowboys. In a typical example, a cowboy's flashy behind-the-back move echoes a piece of gunplay familiar from countless oaters, but his tools are brushes, not Colts; he is a cowboy painter, who works this way, he explains, “in order to release myself from the pedestrian constraints of mere representation.” The combination of a stereotypical character with a vocabulary patently unsuited to him is a rhetorical device Baxter uses again and again, and he could have made this image twenty years ago—in fact he more or less did, many times. But the joke stays fresh. I think this is because the polarity of clichéd pretention and down-homeyness is only one of the image's frictions; there is also the endearing stupidity of the gesture described, and, most of all, the tenderness of the work's realization, its sweet and delicate color—it is a drawing in crayon and ink—evoking a page from the loveliest coloring book you ever had, if only you could color.

But whereas coloring books are small, Baxter has an artist's understanding of scale, maintaining his gentle touch in images up to five-feet high or wide. He also has an unmistakable aesthetic worldliness. I am particularly fond of one image here: a man who has trussed up and gagged another man, and tied him to a chair, addresses his victim benignly. The caption: “'Perhaps now you'll be able to appreciate the soaring lyrical beauty of my poems' announced the author decisively.” It is a picture to make a critic cringe.

David Frankel