“I’m a total believer in absolute nonsense. The absurdity of life is my single goal.” So says artist Glen Baxter whose latest exhibition has just opened at London’s Flowers Gallery in Cork Street. Its very title is appropriately absurd. Gamboge is a yellow pigment that Buddhist monks use to dye their robes. Put it next to the wonderful word “unflinchingly” and you get what he calls “a little explosion”.
I find Baxter’s drawings very funny and so do many others. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Elle and Vogue. He’s had exhibitions around the world and his work is in the collections of the Tate Gallery and the V & A where he also taught from 1967-74. He’s written numerous books including The Billiard Table Murders and Blizzards of Tweed.
This is not bad for someone who grew up in Leeds during the austere post-war years in a household in which the only reading matter was comics. He escaped the drudgery of life by going to the cinema three times a week where every B-picture was a cowboy film.
Cowboys became a symbol of the age of innocence. They appear in many of his works often curiously baffled by contemporary artists such as Malevich in the top shot and Jasper Johns, above, whose early ‘target’ work has clearly unnerved the gunman. Rothko and Mondrian also feature elsewhere, all artists whose work is instantly recognisable and, to the cowboy’s horse, eminently digestible.
The idea for pairing these unlikely cultural forms came many years ago when he visited a Dude Ranch in Arizona, a place where people go to dress up as cowboys and ride horses. He takes up the story in this audio clip.
Along with cowboys, food and drink is another of Baxter’s great loves. His drawings are in no sense mocking or satirical but celebratory in his quirky way. He dislikes being called a cartoonist since his themes are neither topical nor political. “I just want to make people think twice about something in a way that my heroes like Max Ernst did with his original collage novel which is where the idea of that kind of frisson first occurred to me. The idea of cartooning never came into my mind.”
Baxter takes absurdity very seriously. He points to the fact that the French were the first people to be interested in Lewis Carrol whom they viewed foremost as a philosopher rather than a children’s writer. He places his work in the same tradition as the surrealists Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and the nonsense writer Edward Lear. “It stems from when I first went to an art gallery and I didn’t know what I was looking at and I tried to make some sort of sense of it, trying to fit it into my experience of growing up in Leeds.”
Here, the benign butterfly is turned into a threatening insect. The drawing is a good example of his technical accomplishment. Using thickly-textured paper, the colours are graded up in an attempt to evoke the same high quality he discovered when studying lithography at art school in Leeds.
“It lures you into the sensuality of the picture,” he says proudly. When I suggested it looked a bit pointilist he assured me that he and Seurat went to the same school.
Achieving that frisson (Baxter’s favourite word) between the text and the image is a sometimes long and agonising process for him but the humour it releases is a breath of fresh air in an artworld that can sometimes take itself too seriously.
Unflinchingly Gamboge is showing at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3 LZ until 1 February 2020
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.