By Tim Keating
George Blakely's exhibit of recent works reveals a radical departure from the artist previous working method. Blakely ranks as a pioneer in the deconstructionist photography. Early in the 1970s, he launched his career by taking found images out of context, establishing himself as a conceptual artist and a follower of Marcel Duchamp and placing himself outside the mainstream of photographic art practice.
His earliest works included exhibiting discarded photographs, re- photographing found photographs, assembling a cubic foot of snapshots, numbering 50,000, showing a wall of found Santa Claus snaps, using a paper punch on the faces in thousands of photographs and exhibiting the punched out holes separately from the original prints, assembling 365 sunset postcards, and filling a room with 10,000 postcards of his home state of Florida. At this point, the artist’s pieces clearly lined up with the conceptual work of John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler.
These works spoke of late capitalist post-industrial society overrun with objects and images about objects. Compulsively collecting, arranging and displaying images of objects, Blakely dazzled viewers with their sheer volume, commented on society's materialistic excesses, and at the same time created new objects of his own, lavish and highly adorned. These works prefigured that of Jeff Koons, Meyer Vaisman, and a host of American post Warhol artists.
Much like the art of Robert Kushner, Blakely's mid-career work, such as that in 1984's Florida Picture Show, used the richly patterned appearance of traditional American craft objects such as quilts to comment on the emptiness of society whose value system so exalted objects and their images.
His current work attacks this paradox of richness and poverty, fullness and emptiness, with a new strategy. Many of the pieces seen in the 621 show incorporated a real thing, a simulacrum, and yet another version of the thing, decomposing. In Lemon, he attached a yellow plastic lemon shaped ReaLemon juice container to a canvas next to a color photograph of lemon, next to the photograph was a real lemon, shrunken and covered with mold. A painting- like assemblage called Turkey included a bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey, a turkey feather, several wishbones and in front of the austere wall piece, a frozen grocery store turkey on a pedestal, thawing and dripping on the gallery floor. This "Animal Series" also encompassed Mouse, a Mickey Mouse watch and a number of photographs of lab mice, with a live mouse in the cage on the floor beneath. Snake was a long narrow canvas with a rattlesnake skin stretched across it; off-center was a postcard of the Western sunset which echoed the texture of the snakeskin, and on top of this collage rested a polychromed, primitive wood carving of the snake. On the floor below, a live snake coiled in a glass cage.
Casually leaning in the corner of the galleries were several dozen 10 foot poles, (perhaps Blakely was making a joke about using images to distance ourselves from the real things, that is, not touching things with a 10 foot pole?), looking from a distance like abstract striped rods. On a closer look, the viewer saw the polls were covered with thematically linked black-and-white and color photographs; babies, businessman, food, sections of human skin in different tones. The polls recalled Ronald Davis' and Brice Marden's stripe paintings but also measuring sticks and contemporary totems or ceremonial staffs.
Occasionally the poles had been placed so as to directly intersect a wall piece, as with US, in which a 2 foot high headless plaster figure of a woman in a polka dot dress leaned against the canvas covered with circles cut from the faces of portraits culled from popular magazines. Projecting from the canvas, on a long stainless steel rod, was a round mirror that served to incorporate the viewer’s own face into the piece. US takes it's visual cue from Neo- Geo painting but further corrupted it through a visceral use of materials. This was one of the shows most powerful pieces.
The third group of works in the exhibit continued Blakely's "Dictionary" series. The artist cut every illustration in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary out of its page and placed them on blank black canvases, one canvas for each letter in the alphabet. Another work in this series consisted of all the color illustrations from the American Heritage Dictionary placed in order on a single black canvas. In Winston Dictionary for Schools, Blakely separated the illustrations from the book and glued them to 26 white canvases. This series provocatively addresses issues pertaining to semiotics, the split between sign and signifier.
On one gallery wall was a series called Cover-Up People, small box pieces reminiscent of Joseph Cornell, George Herms, Alexis Smith and Edward and Nancy Keinholz. Images cut from magazines of the faces of Nixon, Reagan and Bush appeared behind milky glass, half obscured by rusty nails, smash pencil sharpeners, bone fragments and dice. With their fragments of civilization’s detritus, these boxes referred to the speed with which current events become anecdotes and the synthetic quality of our knowledge of such events. Synthetic reality recurred as a theme in Faux, a canvas painted to look like a marble, with attached to it, a credit card, a fake rock, and a real piece of marble and a magazine ad for zirconium jewelry.
My Dad's Fruit presented a problematic image of a nude woman, headless, with a black circle covering her genitals. Beside it was a page from an anatomy text on female genitalia, with a shriveled piece of dried fruit attached. This assemblage was displayed in tandem with Men, which combined a catalogue photograph of a male model in undershorts with the femoral bone and packaging from a toy called Blaster Balls. Taken together, these pieces reduce gender to empty stereotypes and stale jokes, and it was unclear whether the artist meant to comment critically or was simply restating sexist viewpoints.
The artist sensitivity to cultural otherness came in to question again with Brown, Neutral, Black, which brought together containers of Mohamed Ali shoe polish in the shades of the title with an image, cut into unequal halves, of the fighter clowning for the camera. Fight paired one can of shoe polish with two small wooden figures of boxers. These inevitably were contextualized to Fireballs, which united images of children from Third World countries with marshmallows and red-hot "Atomic Fireball" candies.
Again, the viewer was left to wonder whether these works constitute social critique, and if so, why they were so bleak and open-ended. Perhaps the answer lies in Regurgitate, in which images of food echoed the shape of a plastic pool of fake vomit; or perhaps the answer could be found in Untitled, which juxtapose photographs of lottery winners with a packs of Salem cigarettes, cigarette wrappers and butts, and crushed dollar bills. Was the artist’s intent simply to give back undigested and in a random way (as in a lottery) the myriad contradictory images society offers us?
The sinister and provocative exhibition left this spectator feeling thrilled with Blakely's innovative visual devices and thoroughly engaged in considering the state of the society we live in, but hoping the artist will clarify his position in regard to the meaning of these images.
Timothy Keating is a Professor of Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design
for Art Papers , Atlanta, GA