Why you should care
Because somebody understands you, even if it’s a cartoon cowboy.
Near the end of 2016, I stopped visiting museums. A combination of winter depression and the general fear of oncoming global fascism had made bar conversations unbearable. The art I saw, the poetry I read, it all made me angry — hopeful art was facile, and maudlin art depressing. And then Glen Baxter’s cartoon cowboys reached into that hole and pulled me out.
Baxter, or “the Colonel,” as he sometimes signs his name, is an artist — British, spectacularly so — and jolly in a skeptical way. For a visual, think of the disillusioned, aging (though still dashing) military man who performs one final act of heroism in every monster movie set in North Africa. Baxter’s sharp-witted, strange drawings of people marching gleefully, unwittingly into destruction made me laugh — softly, sardonically, but it was definitely a laugh — for the first time in weeks.
When I walked into his show at the Galerie Isabelle Gounod in Paris last December (admission was free), I was early — Baxter was eating lunch next door — and alone with the drawing he’d done that morning on the wall: A man in a suit too nice to be wandering the wilderness is pushing a giant boulder, unaware of the smaller rock about to hit him in the head. It was wry, sad, elegant, inimitably British, and it expressed in bold lines the exact state many of us feared we were in.
Baxter’s characters are stupid and blind, but they are doing, in most cases, what they think is right based on the information they have.
“It seemed to make perfect ecological sense,” reads the caption for a commemorative plate depicting a man sawing off the tree branch he is perched on. “According to my calculations, the enemy guns are over here … ,’” reads the caption of another plate, this one of a soldier studying a map and pointing off to his right as a massive gun points at him from the top left corner of the frame. It’s all here in vaguely pointillistic color comics: the dry absurdism, the knowledge that we contain the seeds of our own demise, the awareness that whenever we are sure of our own focus, disaster is creeping up from the side. Baxter’s characters are stupid and blind, but they are doing, in most cases, what they think is right based on the information they have. That, or making jokes about the demise of cubism.
Baxter himself — a friendly bear of a septuagenarian who’s utterly meticulous in his work — doesn’t pull his punch lines from thin air. He just has to watch and wait: He once stayed at an Arizona dude ranch, where he bought a Stetson, and a cowboy told him that he had gone through the Tate. “I pictured him riding his horse through it!” Baxter says. Sure enough, it appeared on the page: A cowboy galloping through a museum with the caption “Hank’s tour of the Louvre usually lasted almost 18 minutes.”
“The idea is, you look at the world and you find it absurd,” Baxter says. Absurd and charming and utterly, forgivably human, even in colored pencil and black ink.