JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs, variously framed and unmatted, and hung against bare concrete walls and displayed on metal stands in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival inkjet prints, made between 2014 and 2016. Physical sizes range from roughly 16×20 to 74×73 (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 3. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Finding Lucas Blalock’s new show requires some persistence. Arriving at Ramiken Crucible’s usual gallery space on Grand Street in the Lower East Side, you’ll discover that there are actually no photographs to be seen there. A small map (or a friendly gallery staff member) will instead lead you to the Apple Bank building down Grand Street a couple of blocks. In through the back entrance you’ll go, through a tight hallway, past a locked door, into a forgettable storage area with a box of Halloween gravestone decorations. From there, it’s through another door, down another hallway, and finally down onto some metal steps that lead to a concrete walled sub-basement space, with pipes (some leaking), electric boxes, rusty water stains, and a huge industrial fan. It’s about as far from the perfect antiseptic whiteness of a Chelsea cube as I can imagine, and yet its raw guerilla attitude is quite fabulous – there is a certain humble grace to be found in that gritty overlooked basement.
Blalock’s newest photographs feel right at home in this dingy underground space, as both the pictures and the surroundings exhibit a willful (and almost comic) disregard for prevailing rules. There’s also a common engagement with obsolete technology taking place here, with many of Blalock’s subjects (a newspaper, a plug cable switchboard, an old piano, some blocky paving stones) resonating with the creeping pipes and trailing wires of the basement setting.
The key thing that Blalock has understood better than most of the members of his photographic generation is that a digital photograph is no longer a single inviolable plane of visual information. Instead, it is a thickly layered (and wholly manipulatable) image composite, where multiple component parts are ultimately collapsed back into the familiarity of one plane. While collage, montage, overpainting, and other on-the-surface physical mark making techniques applied in the old analog world, all that diversity of activity has now been channeled into a uniform digital environment, where there is no final on-top or underneath. What Blalock has mastered is the idea that this powerful digital sandwiching has the ability to create uncertainty and perplexing illusion, and his best pictures extend that shifting instability in ways that purposefully create visual tension and off kilter outcomes. He’s deliberately out to throw us off balance, and that wrong footing often leads to a kind of “inside photography” humor.
The simplest of Blalock’s interventions match the “reality” of a photograph with the obvious mark making of the paint program tools. Slices of sausage on a kitchen counter are paired with drawn stand-ins, creating side by side piles that have contrasting visual details. And a wall of silver mailboxes is turned into an old time plug switchboard, with carelessly drawn black lines running between the boxes like wires. In both cases, there is no question that Blalock’s additions aren’t “real”, and it’s that knowing back-and-forth contradiction that interrupts our usual viewing experience.
More subtle are Blalock’s images that turn on the use of erasure, where multiple misaligned layers show through round-edged removed areas, creating stuttering duplications and reversals. A piano draped with a drop cloth (a bit like a shrouded corpse) seems to peek through here and there, as if we could see through the covering, but of course, the layers aren’t in synch, so what we see doesn’t entirely fit what we might expect. A monkey plush toy becomes a distended almost unrecognizable form, its textures repeated and shifted in oddly disorienting ways. And a seated portrait is puzzlingly composed, the head a tangle of incomplete erased lines, the body replaced by a slumped jacket, and the arms and hands crossed on the sitter’s lap as if everything was normal. In each case, our minds create expectations for how these pictures should behave, and Blalock breaks those assumptions, frustrating our efforts to bring the images back into equilibrium.
The most complex of Blalock’s new works are two images (not a diptych but a matched pair) anchored by a flattened picture of a table with a folded newspaper and full ashtray. The only difference between the two is the coloring of the window, with bright whiteness for the “morning” and a soft light blue for the “evening”. The composition is a combination of many techniques, from digitally drawn lines and a gestural fuzzed background to the addition of an outdoor slatted wall image (with shadows cast in opposing directions to the rest of the work) and a chair edge fragment from yet another picture. The results are dizzying and pleasingly incomprehensible, the physical space mangled and twisted into impossibility.
My only complaint with this show, and with Blalock’s output in general, is that it needs a tighter and more ruthless editing hand. If the three or four other works that aren’t as compelling were removed from this exhibit, to be replaced by an equal number of stronger and more nuanced compositions, this could have been a powerhouse knockout of a show. As it stands, there are moments of truly exciting innovation interleaved with meaningfully less challenging one-off marvels, leading to an up and down overall impression.
While I know a number of old school photography purists have had trouble getting comfortable with Blalock’s work, I think he has cemented his leadership position among the digital cadre by developing a visual aesthetic that embraces the new tools while simultaneously undermining their slick perfection. He’s discovered that his “mistakes” actually open up a wide new space for multi-perspective experimentation and that his “drawings” reconsider our physical relationship with a photographic object. Most importantly, he’s found a way to introduce fiction into the guts of photographic truth, and that wrenching clash of fundamental philosophies is leading him to some undeniably original and conceptually sophisticated outcomes.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $18000 based on size. Blalock’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.