Chicago

N. E. Thing Company Limited, Inflated Blue Sky, 1970, inflated polyvinyl acetate, 4' 3" x 13'. From “IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958–2011.”

N. E. Thing Company Limited, Inflated Blue Sky, 1970, inflated polyvinyl acetate, 4' 3" x 13'. From “IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958–2011.”

Iain Baxter&

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

N. E. Thing Company Limited, Inflated Blue Sky, 1970, inflated polyvinyl acetate, 4' 3" x 13'. From “IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958–2011.”

ART IS ALL OVER reads a lithographed document issued in 1971 by the N. E. Thing Company Limited (NETCO), a business founded in 1966, incorporated in 1969, and run by Iain Baxter (now IAIN BAXTER&) and his then wife, Ingrid, until 1978. This punning declaration (which appears as a sort of speech balloon floating on the surface of an official-looking form) marries Duchamp and Pollock, wherein the “allover” technique of AbEx is extended beyond the canvas’s edge to become something that appears everywhere, or “all over.” BAXTER& may have also meant this in another sense, one that points to a post-1968 feeling of resignation wherein art, bereft of new ideas, is itself all over. Cocurated by the MCA’s chief curator, Michael Darling, and David Moos (formerly of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, which organized the show), “Iain Baxter&: Works 1958–2011” traced such tensions across five decades of the Canadian artist’s painting, sculpture, photography, and works on paper. After looking more closely at the document mentioned above, it becomes clear that ART IS ALL OVER was in fact emblazoned on an image of a campaign-style button, an example of NETCO's less conventional object production and activities, which have also included business cards; slide shows; photocopied mail art; questionnaires; telex, telecopier, and telephone communiqués; stationery; graphic design projects; and the sponsorship of a youth hockey team, among other items and actions. Unfortunately, these corporate experiments were hard to find amid the show’s ample offering of more traditional media.

Though Baxter&’s earliest pieces, such as Japanese Screen, 1961, can best be described as gestural abstractions, already by the next year his practice had shifted to become more conceptually engaged—as evidenced by the markedly Johnsian Standards 24, 1962, in which numbered “qualities” of contemporary art are listed alongside painted forms. Around this time, he also began documenting (via photographs of camping sites, athletic clubs, and telephone wires) human encroachment upon the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. His subsequent series of vacuum-formed plastic molds and landscapes, including Landscape with 1 Tree and 3 Clouds, 1965, similarly depict such incidences of culture’s contamination of nature. They also serve as creepy antecedents to the de-skilled landscape photography NETCO would use (as would a corporate real estate developer) to illustrate its “claims” on various vernacular things, places, and preexisiting artworks. NETCO categorized these acquisitions as either “Aesthetically Rejected Things” (“ART,” another possible connotation of the ART IS ALL OVER button) or “Aesthetically Claimed Things” (“ACT”). In the myriad examples included in this show, the explanatory information scrawled in ink atop these images—accompanied by a red sticker (ART), a gold sticker (ACT), or both—can be read as an assertion of the hand against the forces of administration. But to accept this interpretation alone would be to ignore NETCO’s own unabashedly administrative activities and the ways in which 1960s “dematerialization” anticipated the nascent service economy.

The exhibition followed twin self-reflexive threads in the work of Baxter&: on the one hand, an awareness of how artistic production engages or alters the art history by which it is contextualized, and on the other, how humanity at large impacts the natural world in which it exists. The former impulse is emblematized by art-world riffs such as Extended Noland, 1966, which turns abstract lines into ribbons that drift onto the gallery walls, while the latter is well represented by NETCO’s 1/4 Mile Landscape, 1968, a stretch of road identified as a landscape for drivers’ pleasure. In the artist’s more recent, solo efforts, the ecological message has grown heavy-handed: Landscapes are painted onto old televisions (Television Works, 1999–2006), and, in a piece titled Zero Emissions, 2008, taxidermied animals protrude from upturned tailpipes.

In 2005, Iain Baxter legally modified his name to IAIN BAXTER& (all caps) to make explicit how central the act of collaboration is to his practice. After viewing the range of works in this survey, however, one is left feeling that his attempts to cybernetically commune with everything else were most effective when he opted not for mediagenic self-branding but simply to share authorial credit.

Daniel Quiles