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LONDON — Unflinchingly Gamboge! Well, I ask you … The title of this exhibition is ridiculous, of course, shamelessly so. So pretentious too! And those two words taken together, they represent such a clash of personalities: gamboge — a yellow pigment made from gum resin — for the benefit of that sniffy, finicky-fingered mincer of a sliver of a fine art man who cannot for the life of him bear to use the word yellow because it is far too tainted by the degrading fact of its near-universal popularity, and unflinchingly because … well, how could Gamboge ever be chosen Unflinchingly?
Gamboge is far too knock-kneed and effete ever to be boldly unflinching in anybody’s company. Or could Glen Baxter be up to something else altogether? Come to think of it, isn’t Gamboge also the color of a Buddhist’s robes? And of many delicious spoonfuls of Bird’s Eye Custard into the bargain?
In short, who but Baxter, that perpetual troublemaker with words — he’s had a bit of a fixation on wimples too — would ever have thought that two such unlikely bedfellows could actually enjoy each other’s company?
Yes, the truth of it is that only Glen Baxter, that vintage, hopelessly anachronistic-cum-dadaistic, socially real comic book artist (of sorts) from — oh, deepest pit of putrefaction! — Leeds in Yorkshire, could have thought that such a solution as this one to the age-old problem of actually giving an exhibition a title would prove satisfactory to anyone but a miserable chancer of a tyke such as himself.
And yet there it is, brazen as a brass tack in the sole of the foot, cocking a snook at us in the window of a Cork Street gallery. Baxter is back again, with his little, brightly colored cellular lampoonings, executed in vivid crayon — Caran D’Ache, Derwent, and Primalo, since you’re asking — taking no prisoners but his own shadow.
I casually throw down the notion of Social Realism in relation to Glen and this new exhibition of 20 or so oldish, newish, and almost new works at Flowers Central, London, only because he said it first, in answer to a question I put to him just a few days ago (as the crow flies) as part of my ongoing efforts to do my best to pigeonhole this slippery-slithy man, who once pledged an allegiance to Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and is currently about as easy to wrestle to the ground as it would be to catch a butterfly in the jaws of a steam shovel. I’d been mentioning cartooning to him. Did that ring a bell, Glen?
Not at all! He is not a cartoonist, never has been, because cartoonists deal with the topical, the political, the newsworthy, the nasty, chaotic shapelessness of the Now. Whereas almost everything that he puts his hands on — from those wigs to the keen, Brideshead side-partings on the heads of smooth-jawed, bland young socialites; from the motorbikes to the jaw-jaws in the jungle — has been flung into the lumber room of history long ago.
But how can Glen’s work have anything whatsoever to do with society or realism when it seems to suggest, by its very unstable and ridiculous nature, that society is a construct as dependable as ant routines on a trapeze, and reality as real as the Nirvana to be glimpsed inside a soap bubble by any passing, Gamboged Buddhist monk?
Fortunately, there is a source of authority upon which we know we can always depend, even when it is profoundly mistaken in matters of fact and opinion, and that is – I hear you mouth the very words even before I lightsomely tap these keys – The New York Review of Books. Two years ago the NYRB published a book called Almost Completely Baxter – New and Selected Blurtings. And the imprint under which it was published? New York Review Comics! So there you have it.
Glen Baxter is not, after all, a variety of canned soup, opportunistically snatching his deft cue from Warhol. He is not an advanced experiment in robotics either. Nor is he a manufacturer of medicines. He is, according to the NYRB, a comic book artist from Leeds who currently has a studio in Camberwell, South London.
Some while ago, the great American poet John Ashbery tried to nail down Baxter’s lineage by naming the names of a few like-minded scribblers and daubers from the past. This is what he came up with: Lewis Carroll, Sax Rohmer, Marquis de Sade, Raymond Roussel, Luther Burbank, and the Comte de Lautréamont. The young Baxter got his first big break in the US in 1974, when Ron Padgett and Larry Fagin invited him to read his poetry at St Mark’s Church in New York. A subsequent show at the Gotham Book Mart Gallery came to the attention of Edward Gorey, who became an early champion. And so it has gone on.
So what are these works in the show today? As fairly customary, Glen is taking a tilt at the absurdities of the fuzzy, whizzy showbizyness of the art world. He’s been doing this for years. Remember, quite early on, that spread-legged cowboy, Stetsoned, bandanna-ed, low-slung-gunned to the nines, standing with his back to us, staring at a blank canvas by a Ryman or some other modern American showman/roustabout big in the auction house? The gunslinger’s frozen to the spot. His arms are about to wheel helplessly in the air. No well-greased bullet will avail him. Never in his life on the prairie has he been confronted by such a barefaced object of menace, fraudulence, and emasculating perplexity as this blank canvas which costs so much and promises so little. The caption, as bald as it is simple, reads: It was Tom’s first brush with modernism.
Baxter’s art hits its mark over and over by setting just a handful of pithy words beneath an image as ridiculously simple and crisp as any glass of water. The two go hand in hand, image and word, like lovely, well-practiced routines. The paper he habitually uses looks and feels a little ragged and antique, though it’s not. It’s Two Rivers watercolor paper, hand-made in Somerset. Its grainy texture allows for a strange stippling effect, which seems to dust the whole with an air of comic unreality. In this show, a cowboy bursts into a room through a doorway without a door. A torch flares in his hand. His presence there is set against the blue of the night sky beyond, the sliver of a high-riding crescent moon. Inside lies nothing but trouble: a mobile hangs in the air. The caption reads: “Calder or no Calder, I’m going in!” bellowed the connoisseur.
Will Baxter never stop threatening us with butterflies?
Unflinchingly Gamboge: the Selected Works of Glen Baxter continues Flowers Central (21 Cork Street, London, England) through Febuary 1.