Julie Blackmon: Up Around the Bend @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2021 or 2022. The prints are available in three sizes – roughly 26×32, 36×47, and 45×60 inches – and come in editions of 7 or 10. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past two decades, Julie Blackmon has built an enviable photographic career out of deliberately pushing scenes of American domesticity into the realm of warmly recognizable fantasy. At first glance, her pictures of backyards, summer nights, modest neighborhoods, and kids running free seem altogether familiar, with the rhythms of the often chaotic everyday lives of families and children frozen for just an instant. But up close, Blackmon’s compositions reveal themselves to be meticulously controlled constructions, engaging facsimiles of reality where every single detail has been carefully placed and stage-managed to generate a desired effect. In a sense, Blackmon has used the flexibility of contemporary photography to transform images back into something like hyper-real paintings, using the mechanism of the camera to capture all the controlled elements of a given scene, but pre-visualizing and arranging them with an eye for very specific compositional choices and outcomes.

Given the complexity buried in each of Blackmon’s tableaux, it’s a wonder she’s been so consistently prolific. Prior to the pandemic, she regularly hit her marks with gallery shows every two or three years, in 2017 (reviewed here), 2014 (reviewed here), 2012 (reviewed here), and 2010 (reviewed here). Along the way, she has continually evolved her aesthetics within her chosen set of boundaries, playing with references to 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters and interweaving more current cultural nods, winks, and homages. A Blackmon image has come to have a recognizable look and feel, where pared down simplicity and domestic disorder wrestle to a kind of tense visual equilibrium, with everything (and everybody) placed with intention.

In Blackmon’s most recent works, we find her using different vantage points to anchor the arrangement of her scenes. Several setups are squared off and frontal, using stairs and flattened space with little depth to collapse all the action into essentially one plane. In “Masks”, kids haphazardly posing on a front porch get ready for Halloween with rubber masks and one discarded rubber hand, the action taking place at several stepped levels. The same can be said for “Metaverse”, which uses a turned staircase to orient the busy composition, where one boy lost in the visuals of a VR headset is matched by another watching the world go by from an open doorway, with several others scrambling around seemingly unattended. A third image “Costco” uses a parked van to create spatial layers, with bulk purchases left on the ground, set inside the open door, and stacked on the roof. And within each image, Blackmon offers various small discoveries – artistic references to Arbus and Meatyard in the masked scene, a strawberry smoothie set on the piano in “Metaverse”, and a wry mix of vodka, Cheez-Its, ranch salad dressing, and a Dorito’s bag as a large as a small child in the overstimulated Costco run.

In two other works, Blackmon applies this frontal view to deeper scenes that extend back in space further. In “Paddleboard”, Blackmon recreates a river composition by the 19th century Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham (Blackmon is a native of Springfield, MO), posing her pregnant sister on the modern board with a stack of gear, a young boy, some recently caught fish, and another Dorito’s bag, with a comically ominous shark fin swimming in the background and someone falling off an inner tube nearby. “New Neighbors” has a similar kind of compositional depth, allowing a neighborhood sidewalk and driveway scene to trail off down the block, with a moving van, a real estate sign, various stray pieces of furniture, and a pair of girls straight out of “The Shining” staring down a toddler on a plastic trike; a stack of books including several parenting volumes and The Joy of Cooking adds to the domestic aura, but the strangeness of the two red-dressed sisters skews everything in the grey scene just a tad further off kilter.

Blackmon gets much higher in the final three works in the show, adding an elevated top down perspective (perhaps as seen from an upstairs window, a ladder, or a high platform) filled with all-over detail that recalls the peasant scenes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. “Snow Days” spaces figures and objects all over the frame – one buried in the snow, another feeding a squirrel, a third dragging a toboggan, and an adult on an ATV towing a child on a sled, among other wintertime activities and temporarily abandoned gear. “Night Swim” creates a similar effect with various swimmers, some in soaked (or fluttery) nightgowns, others in the canoe, and and one pair of feet tossed in the air presumably after a dive underwater. “Spray Paint” feels the most resolutely abstract, with the swirling curve of a red hose cutting through the composition and a white ring, a split watermelon, and a trio of infants marking off the balanced geometries; there’s even a stray surgical facemask left in the grass among the tools and cans of paint, if only to center us in a pandemic-era outdoor reality.

Given the playfulness found in much of Blackmon’s work, it’s easy to lose track of the intricacy of her image-making. As seen in this show, her strongest images encourage both browsing and unpacking, where Normal Rockwell-esque domestic Americana is then given a contemporary update with more knowing bite and structure. When we tick off the innovative contemporary photographers who are actively constructing their images in a “made-to-be-photographed” manner, we sometimes overlook Blackmon, which says something about how we get distracted by her approachable family-centric subject matter and her arch visual wittiness. But with each successive show, she continues to deliver her own unique brand of precisely constructed almost-reality, teasing us with understated cleverness and social commentary.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $4000 (first print of the edition in the smallest size) to $20000 (AP in the largest size). Blackmon’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $9000 for the few lots that have changed hands.

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