New York

Glen Baxter

Flowers Gallery

In his most recent novel Millennium People (2003), J. G. Ballard imagines a middle-class insurrection in which the most comfortable members of contemporary London society attempt to destroy the very system they were responsible for creating, transforming their tasteful effects into tools of civil disobedience: “Banners hung from dozens of balconies, sheets of best Egyptian cotton from Peter Jones, gladly sacrificed for the revolution.” Should British cartoonist Glen Baxter ever leave behind the alternative past he prefers to inhabit, Ballard’s alternative present might well be his first port of call.

Social class isn’t a particularly fashionable topic in contemporary art—especially in the US, where the matrix of habits and mores that remain key to the makeup and operation of English society is routinely disregarded in favor of base economic competition—but Baxter’s work functions in part through a consistent play on just such cultural stratification. In juxtaposing signifiers that would normally be identified exclusively with one of the parallel universes of upper, middle, or working class (terms whose meanings differ subtly on opposite sides of the Atlantic), then further complicating the result through a strategic deployment of anachronism and mismatched pop-genre conventions, he achieves a kind of social-surrealist comedy comparable to the achievements of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Vic Reeves.

“’Tis called polenta, Robin, and as a floor covering it hath no equal” explained the salesman: The title of Baxter’s 2004 framed ink-and-pastel drawing almost needs no visual accompaniment, but it’s made all the funnier by a rendition of the fictional rebel hero watching as a huge yellow sheet of the cornmeal mush is laid out in a Sherwood Forest clearing. The work’s deliberately stiff rendering and studied panel-and-caption format—instantly recognizable as an affectionate parody of pre-superhero comic books—has long been a trademark of Baxter’s, and is repeated throughout the show. The comfortable scale and cheerful coloring are also constant.

But which is more tellingly incongruous, the patent ludicrousness of food as carpet, or the fact that Mr. Hood—purportedly a selfless champion of the poor—now appears to be in the market for chichi domestic appointments? And what exactly is polenta—a dish that, in England at least, is about as middle class (and contemporary middle class at that) as food gets—doing among the outlaws of twelfth-century Nottingham, a group who might now be demonized as members of the long-term-unemployed/criminal “underclass”?

If food provides Baxter with one extensive source of props (consider also As a bemused Lars ponders the very meaning of existence, the room behind him is slowly filling with hundreds of mini chicken Kievs, 2005), high modernist art and design prove equally fruitful. In “So which of you two galoots is the durned Dutch designer?” drawled Sheriff McAllister, 2004, the mounted lawman somehow manages to miss a rather striking visual clue: One of the cowboys to whom he directs his inquiry is wearing a Stetson modeled, improbably, after a Rietveld chair. The Wild West and formalist abstraction also prove to be a volatile mix in At the late night Brancusi seminar the tension is almost palpable, 2005, in which a difference of opinion over the sculptor’s influence seems to have sparked a gunfight.

Baxter lays it on a bit thick from time to time—there’s something grating, for example, in his actual naming of Surrealism in Officer McNally is called to investigate an outbreak of Surrealism on the outskirts of New Jersey, 2005—and his self-conscious intellectualism (an avowedly middle-class trait) occasionally descends from bracingly high-minded to smugly middlebrow. Yet while his humor is unarguably characterized by gentle whimsy (compare it to the darker visions of R. Crumb or David Shrigley and it can seem rather twee), it gains quiet strength from a set of references that speak to a specific cultural inheritance.

Michael Wilson