Julie Blackmon: Fake Weather @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two-room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, dated between 2015 (4), 2016 (3) and 2017 (5). Physical sizes range between roughly 36×36 and 58×44 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 5 or 7. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Julie Blackmon’s staged photographs of disorder on the home front share more DNA with New Yorker cartoons and GEICO ads than the solemn Victorian or brainy post-modern traditions of constructed imagery. Up-to-date satires about the latest foibles and pretensions of America’s white middle class, her scenarios are usually more darling than snarling, and geared to flatter her audience rather than alienate it. Each staged scenario delivers a punch line but also has a lot of business happening in the corners, so that viewers are invited to take their time putting the sequence of the story elements together.

More often than not, close attention is rewarded. It’s not easy being funny, as a writer or a photographer, and her jokes are well-crafted and never mean. They don’t fall back on kooky surrealism, like Sandy Skoglund’s, or the sex-and-violence clichés of film noir, like Alex Prager’s. Behind the fraught situation in a Blackmon photograph, you sense that a complicated emotion, not just a glib one, has triggered her stage directions.

As in her previous three shows at Robert Mann, the setting for her cine-dramas is the whirling cauldron of family life, with children as the main pot stirrers. (Her oeuvre is thus closer to Sally Mann’s early work than to Gregory Crewdson’s.) Parents are either oblivious to the mayhem or barely visible and inconsequential. That goes double for fathers.

In this latest installment, the kids are still alright and, by sheer numbers as well as control over their backyard and household environments, more in charge of the asylum than ever. Teenage girls laze prettily on a blanket while a teenage boy in a cap sits cross-legged and blows smoke rings (Weeds). No adult is in sight. That may be just as well because even when they are in the picture, they’re not paying close attention to the imminent dangers. In Pool, we see only the legs of an older male in the lower left corner, a few feet away from a long carving knife stuck in a watermelon. The eight children playing in the aqua water or sitting along the pool’s edge are safe for now, but not because of watchful supervision.

Blackmon can be painfully irksome when you sense she has coached her child actors to be adorable. In the title piece for the show, sisterly tykes in snowsuits stand against a backdrop while artificial snow falls around their feet. Along with tall fur hats, they also wear looks of exasperation, supposedly because a parent or two has forced them to pose for this elaborate future Christmas card. The hands and head of their manic father, throwing fistfuls of white stuff from behind the scene, are at the top of the prop, as in a Charles Addams or George Booth cartoon. The title is Fake Weather and that’s not the only thing fake about it.

The best images here are those that keep the children off stage or as bit players. In the photograph titled Trapped we view the random accumulations of family life that have been stored inside a darkened garage. On the walls or the concrete floor: skateboards, sleds, a tennis racket, life preserver, spare tire, baby carriage, pair of garden shears, orange extension cord, and an old copy of Life magazine. Glaring at us from a picnic bench (sans picnic table) is a large gray Persian cat. The only light in this gloom comes through four porthole windows in the garage door. The grime on the glass is so thick that someone has been able to write KCUF on the outside. In the lower right corner, as useless, abandoned but potentially valuable as the rest of the junk, is a Clinton-Kaine campaign poster and a hand-lettered sign that reads “Resist,” perhaps a souvenir from last year’s Women’s marches.

In its frustrated rage, harbored grief, bafflement, impotence, hope, and disbelief that the future greatness for the country lies in a return to the past, the image expresses the confused emotional state of liberal American women since the election of Trump better than almost anything I’ve seen.

A pair of 2017 photographs, Sidewalk and South & Pershing, introduce a gritty flavor to Blackmon’s sugar-rich diet. Each is faintly urban rather than suburban, and the scenario is more open-ended than message-driven. The characters—young grown-ups—seem independent of one another, the gestures modeled on those of street photography, not illustration.

The stand-out in the show, Holiday, is nevertheless one of Blackmon’s droll and poignant takes on the American family and its fragile dreams. The setting is a ranch house on a suburban street where the owners don’t have lots of money for upkeep or child care. The garage door is on the fritz and opens only a sliver. The Christmas lights aren’t plugged in and have been left strewn on the driveway. The step-ladder by the side of the house is unmanned. The extension cord dangles from the roof. A baby doll lies on a lawn of dead grass.

But a bare tree sticks up like a cowlick from the backyard. And a green wreath hangs on a blue door next to a picture window where a half-naked boy (or girl?) stands precariously on the back of a chair or sofa and stares curiously at us.

I can’t tell if Blackmon was consciously invoking classic photographs by Robert Adams and Stephen Shore from the 1970s notable for similar motifs and themes. I can only say that her rendition is equally adept at capturing a historical moment. Norman Rockwell wasn’t always a sunny optimist about America and its future. Blackmon is most effective, and at her most maternal, when her pictures suggest that the challenges in store for today’s children aren’t fake ones.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from from $6500 to $9000, based on size. Blackmon’s work has begun to trickle into the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $9000 for the few lots that have changed hands.

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