Toronto

Iain Baxter&

Corkin Gallery

Aside from functioning as a mild irritant (it’s all too easy to read it as a typo), the ampersand legally appended to Iain Baxter’s name serves a conceptual end by designating others as fellow authors of his oeuvre. For Baxter&—a pioneering figure who first adopted a light-box format for photographs depicting banal streetscapes in and around Vancouver back in the ’60s—this dispersal of authorship has been almost too effective, given the signature styles of more prominent Vancouver School artists such as Jeff Wall and Roy Arden. Baxter&’s lack of recognition, particularly outside of Canada, is unfortunate, given the formal and material inventiveness he has consistently demonstrated in the course of his long career.

The themes of Baxter&’s work often center on outdated technology, the fate of refuse, and ecology in general. His installation Television Works, 1999–2006, which employs ten salvaged or secondhand TV sets, was exhibited recently at the Corkin Shopland Gallery. The TVs range widely in scale and style, from a proletarian little Sears model to a more deluxe Toshiba. Most were arranged on discarded plinths and pedestals. A few sets were mounted on walls using fixtures normally encountered in a bar or cheap hotel room. The artist has painted crude seascapes and landscapes on their screens—an act somewhat lessened in subversive severity by the appliances’ obvious obsolescence, and, one may (always) argue, that of the pigment itself. Rows of lines have been scratched through the paint, and when the sets are plugged, in the glow of the snowy underlying screen shines through.

The flickering linear patterns located beneath painted trees or seas suggest a flowing breeze or glistening water. Such effects contribute a meditative flavor to mundane images of nature: One features sailboats drifting below an array of brown, commalike clouds, while another contains an atmospheric sky in bluish gray above a central hill rendered in a flurry of autumnal green, red, ochre, and brown strokes. The luminescence of color effects provided by the backlit supports—relatives of Baxter&’s light boxes—often had a surprising art-historical resonance: Expanses of deep blue and green, used at times to represent skies or seas, recalled Robert Delaunay’s Orphist discs and late works by van Gogh such as Crows Over the Wheat Field, 1890.

Indeed, with their primary function as transmitters of popular entertainment negated, the symbolic and psychological potential of the TVs was amplified: A compositional competition was created between the painted imagery and the knobs, dials, and antennae that served strangely fetishistic and regressive functions for those able to recall the formative experience of idly fiddling with them as a child. And in the absence of the usual broadcasts, one had to make do with receiving the sets’ subtle radiation of warmth and soft humming sounds—as well as consider the sentimental and linguistic significance of dated brand names and antiquated technical features: The Magnavox with its whimsical rabbit ears was placed on the floor; the Toshiba indicated that it possessed a mysterious “black stripe” feature; and the Sears had picturesquely weathered levers for volume, brightness, and contrast. The overall impression of the show was of a remarkably fluid and complex tableau that provokes speculation about how the natural and the man-made world are connected through the abandoned and outdated.

Dan Adler