Conceptual artist shows no signs of slowing down

After 50 years in the world of contemporary conceptual art, with exhibits at some of the planet’s best-known galleries, you’d think Iain Baxter& had earned the right to wear a t-shirt like the one he donned for a recent opening of a retrospective collection of his career at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

“Masturbating life makes art,” was the slogan emblazoned on the shirt he wore for the November 5 opening.

“I tend to come up with phrases that make you think,” Baxter& said last week after returning from the show, which remains there until January 15 and then moves to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a six-month run. “I like to confuse the art world. I like to be a burr in the saddle of intellectual inquiry.”

While the professor emeritus of visual arts may be at ease these days wearing a shirt like that among the cultural haut monde, it is apparent that he’s always been a man who marches to his own tune.

Baxter& started off studying zoology at the University of Idaho, where he had earned a skiing scholarship. A professor named Earl Larrison spotted his artistic talents and asked him to illustrate a book he was working on called The Wildlife of the Northern Rocky Mountains.

“He had a lot of cameras and that was what got me in to photography,” said Baxter&, who legally added the ampersand to his name in 2005. “I was very excited about water colours at that time too. I thought I might become the next Audubon.”

It was around that time he also became interested in the work of Morris Graves, an American expressionist painter and mystic who incorporated elements of East Asian philosophy into his work.

“That got me really interested in Buddhism,” he said. He eventually earned his degree in zoology, but was working on his art all the time. In 1961, he travelled to Japan where he staged his first one-man gallery show. “After that I realized that I really wanted to be an artist.”

He was accepted in to the MFA program at Washington State University and then landed a faculty position at the University of British Columbia.

“I lived right next to David Suzuki then,” he said. It was around that time he was turned on to the work of Marshall McLuhan.

“I got very excited about his ideas and started thinking about art as information,” he said.

After UBC, he moved to Simon Fraser University and eventually ended up at UWindsor in 1988. In between all that, he established the N.E. Thing Company, a corporate-styled entity that produced a wide range of conceptual photography and gallery transforming installations and allowed the artists to masquerade in the guise of business people.

“I just decided to use it as an umbrella to do all these things,” he said. “It would allow me to do anything.”

While the space in Chicago didn’t allow for a complete retrospective of his work, Baxter& said it still provided him with an opportunity to reflect.

“You really think about all the work that you’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s nice to see the arc of your development as an artist and the connections between it all.”

While some might believe a retrospective exhibit may mark a career’s conclusion, Baxter& shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. He is still very active in the School of Visual Arts,  and is planning a work that would reflect the number of times he uses the word “and” in a year.

“This department is really moving in a lot of exciting directions,” he said.