Passing Through: Iain Baxter& Photographs 1958-1983
August 10, 2007 to October 14, 2007 @ Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
“This exhibition will situate Baxter&’s photographic practice in relation to the development of photography in Vancouver, tracing the way in which Baxter& influenced a generation of West Coast artists including Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, and Ken Lum who subsequently have garnered international attention for their work”, says James Patten, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Windsor.
The newest compellation of Iain Baxter& photographs that reside temporarily at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria are conceptually compelling and confusing. In the large space that curator James Patten has reserved for the photographs are six walls that encapsulate a variety of photographs from 1958 to 1983. Two of these walls stand on their own in the centre of the room and contain a random assortment of images. The four structural walls contain the same sort of works, including photos that are part of a duratran light-box component and large colour prints. The one and only black and white photograph titled Liquid Detergent, Vancouver, British Columbia (1965) is to one’s immediate right as they enter the room and sticks out like a sore thumb. The photographs themselves are based on Baxter&’s travels over the past twenty-five years through Canada and the United States. They are images of people and places that reveal how Canada’s national identity has evolved through the years 1958 to 1983. Mobility is a key component to this project wherein communication technologies were being improved by international developments. The changes being made to our nation were epitomized as an optimistic headway for Canadian identity and could be seen through the eyes of our nation’s traveling and educated youth.
This optimistic sense of Canadian identity is the very thing that Baxter& fixates on. His photographs embody the concept of technology as a negative rather than a positive. In the photograph Western Landscape, Pacific National Exhibition, Vancouver (1967), the artist has captured irony at its height. At the foreground of the photograph, there is a man standing with his horse. The two are placed in front of a false landscape (painted on fabric) to resemble the authentic western mountainous landscape in the background. The same idea is represented in Esso Station, North Vancouver, British Columbia (1967) wherein a cement and plastic gas station is placed directly into a naturally beautiful setting that can be land-marked as British Columbian soil. The false landscape and the human rather than nature-built environment identified in juxtaposition with the true landscape in both of these examples makes it clear that Baxter& is critiquing industrial culture as he sees it throughout his travels across Canada; primarily, a technologically driven society.
One cannot help but refer back to Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s Industrial Landscapes series when interpreting Baxter&’s work. There is a strong relationship to note here in terms of the recently popularized concept of industrialization and its relation to beauty. Baxter&’s photographs have a much different sense of beauty attached to them as they are not fine-print works but based in the tradition of concept-art photography.
The artist’s message is clear and arguably hard to misinterpret. The layout and organization of the photographs within the room, however, do not lend themselves to the conceptual strengths of the work. There are some elements which are recognizably incompatible with each other. This is to say that the dates of the photographs represented in the duratran light boxes do not correspond with the years of the photographs that are framed and put on the various walls. The exhibition would be much stronger if the most recent photographs, for example, were in light boxes (as light is a prime symbol of technology) and the older, more historical representations were left as is – to be placed directly on the walls. There is no consistency in the progression of the photographs to help the conceptual content.
Although confusing in terms of how the exhibition is arranged conceptually, it is evident that Baxter& has raised important contemporary issues in regards to recognizing that urbanization is not only making itself apparent through waves in British Columbia, it has been doing so across much of the Canadian provinces throughout the past twenty-five years. Baxter& has documented this cultural phenomenon in such a way that his photographs reveal the important connections between art, history, society, geography and national identity.
Jessica Devenport, WM Victoria
October 10, 2007