George Blakely: Ultra Un-Photographer

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Detail of a junk mail totem in George Blakely’s yard.

“Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues, and collects…He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.”1

Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art at the Hunter Museum through January 8th

Although George Blakely has been living in Florida since 1978 when he began teaching at The Florida State University, he was born and raised in southern California and his work has remained solidly within the aesthetic sensibility of SoCal conceptual art. With its postmodern disregard for artistic categories, and mix of high intellect, hi-jinx and comedic kitsch, it was a movement referred to in 1981 by critic Robert Flick as “regionalism with international impact.” Blakely began making work at a wide open time and place in photographic history, described by artist Ed Ruscha as an era where, “There were no rules to be written, and no rules to be followed in the same sense that there are in painting and sculpture and other forms of art.”2
Blakely has been described as “a photographer who doesn’t use a camera” and an artist who “reframes photography,” whose work over the past thirty years has ranged from portraits of contemporary culture created from found photographs—some presented as large-scale installations—to self-portraits created with objects from his decades-spanning evidence of collecting and consumption habits project.3 His philosophical stance has been one of cultural critique, and acknowledges, “A portrait of the human condition is not always pretty.”
The most interesting questions for Blakely are ones a social scientist might ask: “Who are we?” or “Why do we do things the way we do them?”
As an extension of his artistic agenda, Blakely has curated several widely admired exhibitions, including 1997’s BANG! The Gun as Image at the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University, 2005’s Heartfelt (widely referred to as The Love Show) and the 2010 exhibition titled APPETITE. All three are examples of how his personal aesthetic has enriched and supported his curatorial approach.
In the catalog for BANG! The Gun As Image, Blakely writes:

I am presenting not my thoughts alone, but the material to provoke your thoughts. My objective is to hold a mirror to our society; we see ourselves and our issues reflected in the artists’s dialogues. The range of artists’s political positions on the topic is wide and the implications of their imagery diverse. What you choose to do with the ideas and the images from which they are derived is another creative act: what opinions are you going to take and with whom will you discuss them?

The catalog includes artworks from a wide range of artists, from the unknown and untrained, to the internationally successful. Works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Mapplethorpe were displayed along with many artifacts depicting the gun— toys, jewelry, books, bumper stickers, hats—to show just how pervasive that guns are in our culture, no matter what your perspective is on the debate over gun control. Blakely also included quotations from literature and film, a listing of over 200 films that include guns or shooting in their titles, and a list of ephemera, primarily contemporary: from a “Mean Wiener” toy (a plastic hot dog bun holding a gun), to magazines, calendars, bumper stickers, t-shirts, books, key chains, cigarette lighters, and glassware.  BANG! The Gun As Image both celebrated and criticized the many political points of view surrounding the gun. This spring, Tom LeGro for PBS’s ArtBeat interviewed Blakely to revisit conversations surrounding art and its use of gun imagery, specifically in the wake of the December 2012 Newton, CT shootings.

Catalog for 1997’s BANG! The Gun as Image at the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State University.

Blakely maintained a stamp collection as a child. He tells of becoming so consumed by the process of organizing and arranging the stamps that he purchased the collections of other neighborhood children so that he would have more material to work with. Many of his artworks reflect a similar highly-organized, process-oriented and intense hands-on engagement with materials, requiring activities such as repetitive sorting and systematic organization of a gigantic amount of material and images.

The reuse of found photos, picture postcards, and other objects in much of his work has been seen by one art historian as a call to a “reengagement of the dismissed, the discarded, the neglected…The obsessive/compulsive quality as well as the sometimes overwhelming abundance of material and information in Blakely’s work provides a wakeup jolt, a vantage point for recognizing the numinosity found in new arrangements of the cheap, despised and common substances we miss every moment of our lives.”4
Blakely’s first important series began in the mid-1970’s while still a graduate student in design at California State, Fullerton, and working part time as a janitor at Disneyland, where he collected thousands of photos (SX-70’s and Polaroids) discarded by tourists, reusing them to create a group of works he called Selected Rejections from the Magic Kingdom. This led directly to the series Very Blue Variable Blue Sky and the gigantic (10 x 20 feet) Wall of Santas, as well as A Cubic Foot of Photographs—again using found photographs for material as well as content, where the photographs came from discarded snapshots from the waste bin at a photo lab in Philadelphia, where Blakely had moved to attend the MFA program at Tyler School of Art. The Blue Sky works include hundreds of discarded ‘accidental’ photos of the sky, and are a meditation not only on the variations produced by mechanical color processing but also a comment on photography and ideas about what constitutes a ‘photographic worthy’ image. (Is a photo of the sky a photo of nothing?) Blakely’s Wall of Santas comprised thousands of discarded photos of people, mostly children, sitting on Santa’s lap. The work explodes a charming icon of innumerable photo scrapbooks, as it takes on a mantle of cultural creepyness when seen multiplied thousands of times.
Blakely’s iconic A Cubic Foot of Photographs from 1978 is composed of bundles of domestic snapshots, tied together with rubber bands, string and wire, and stacked tightly into a cube so that the only images seen are the ones on the top. Although the shape of the work strongly refers to the minimalist sensibility prevalent at the time, the impenetrable block of hidden images provides mysterious and richly poetic content. The experience of viewing this piece is rather like watching someone sleeping and trying to guess what they are dreaming.

George Blakely, A Cubic Foot of Photographs, 1978, image: all rights reserved by John Armstrong aka John Legweak.
George Blakely, A Cubic Foot of Photographs, 1978, dimensions variable, all image rights reserved by John Armstrong aka John Legweak.

Experimenting with other alternative presentations of photographic images, Blakely produced three series he calls Face Dots, People Poles and Slices. The Face Dots are literally faces hole-punched out of found photos and exhibited by the thousands in piled up mounds. People Poles are a celebration of the anonymous, with tiny head shots dotting long, thin totems that Blakely refers to as “cultural barometers.” The Slices were created by cutting a 1/8 inch strip off the edge of reels of uncut photos, yielding 30 feet long, tangled abstractions, like elegant three-dimensional drawings.
Picture Postcards
After living in the state [FL] for several years, Blakely became fascinated with images of Florida as represented in picture post cards, and started producing work using these images. This fascination resulted first with, in 1984, The Florida Pictures Show, an installation that covered floors, walls and ceiling of a gallery with picture postcards. With this work, Blakely celebrated both the banal and the gaudy, and succeeded, through repetition and abstraction, in transforming the element of kitsch inherent to the Florida postcards, pushing it into the realm of the weirdly sublime.
He expanded the focus of his investigations in the late 80s with the TEXT/IMAGE series. Rather than relying on chance and found photos to supply his artistic material, Blakely chose his material very specifically. TEXT/IMAGE was a project to deconstruct and reconfigure three major photographic history texts, the titles of which Blakely borrows for the three works in the series: The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall; A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum, and American Images: Photography 1945-1980 by Peter Turner. The obsessive/compulsive text/image works, referred to by Blakely as “dissections,” are produced by cutting the images away from the text, then reconfiguring the images—minus text—into massive two-sided collages. He also used this process to create other works, including Jenson’s History of Art, Webster’s Dictionary and The Encyclopedia Britannica. His comment on these projects, “We pay attention to what the media tells us to,” refers to the underlying reductive current exposed through these works.
Blakely challenges us to think about the object/image relationship and how our view of the world is focused and manipulated by use of language and mass production. One curator, writing about the TEXT/IMAGE series, noted, “Blakely’s new constructions speak to the repetition and selectivity of most historical treatments of anything. The number of photographs produced in the world is truly staggering and the reduction of this activity to a few hundred exemplars is made to seem arbitrary, peremptory, and restrictive.”5
Totems, Tablets, and Clowns
In the 1990’s, bringing his art making processes to bear on his daily life, Blakely created a series of self portraits that he refers to as “evidence of my collecting and consumption habits,” by saving and sorting everything from junk mail to toenail clippings, for reuse as material in his work. An inordinate amount of material is routinely discarded by everyone living on this planet, most especially in our American culture. The way Blakely makes use of these discards is surprising, funny, and sort of horrifying.  His house and surrounding property has been implicated in this project: closets and drawers bulge with sorted material, works lean against walls and line outdoor pathways. The variety of work that has sprung from this activity includes sculptural objects, outdoor installations and large format Polaroids.
The sculptural objects include totems created from a wild variety of materials. Junkmail totems—looming stacks jammed into the earth—line paths in Blakely’s yard. Cigarette butts bristle from a person-sized piece of telephone pole like some death-filled contemporary power object. Clusters of glass bottles, colorful pieces of plastic, old shoes, clothes, and numerous other materials all balloon ever larger as the works are added to in an increasingly baroque and rather scary Sisyphean avalanche.
Junk mail totems in situ at George Blakely’s home, image courtesy the artist.

The works Blakely calls Tablets and Clowns also lie along these paths. For the most part, the Tablets, large rectangles of concrete overlaid with objects embedded in a thick layer of clear resin, celebrate and memorialize items and creatures that Blakely treasures or has emotional connections with, such as the piece I Love My Dogs, They Are My Family, that includes not only photos of the dogs and dog toys, but also actual dog shit. The Clowns are round, cake-sized faces created using the same method as the Tablets. Blakely’s ingenious use of a wild and chaotic variety of household discards to create his zany repertory of facial expressions, make these pieces both comical and sobering.
The large format Polaroids are self portraits, Blakely depicting himself in formal portrait format with a variety of objects—tufts of hair, bones, nail clippings, bits of plastic, etc.—overlaying his image. These works are conventional in the sense that they are (very rare) photographs that Blakely has produced rather than found. They are also some of the more unsettling, as the objects overlaying Blakely’s image threaten to obscure it entirely.
The media of picture postcards is one that Blakely returned to using recently, with his April 2013 exhibition, Reinventing the Landscape, a large-scale installation covering 3,000 square feet of walls and floor at 621 Gallery in Tallahassee, FL. The installation included over 30,000 picture postcards of iconic scenes from across the United States, joined together on three foot square panels that reconfigured the gallery into an abstracted Southern Gothic version of the Blue Mosque. Blakely reinvented the landscape utilizing iconic postcards with images such as Old Faithful and Mt. Rushmore, and intends the installation to play with the viewers’ internal landscapes.
Installation view, George Blakely, 621 Gallery, Tallahassee, FL
Installation view, George Blakely, Reinventing the Landscape (featuring his Postcard series), April 5-28, 2013, 621 Gallery, Tallahassee, FL

Beyond the personal, memoirist aspect, the overarching impulse of much of Blakely’s work is to reference the ecological. His entire career has been focused on reuse of materials that others have discarded. When something is discarded, it is rendered invisible. Blakely has transfigured these objects, making them visible again, and insisting that we see and therefore know them as well.
1. Quotation by Baudelaire, in his description of one of his favorite figures: the ragpicker. Found in Susan Sontag’s essay, Melancholy Objects, collected in, On Photography, 1973. Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York.
2. Quotations by Jon Mann, Blakely’s colleague in FSU’s photography department.
3. Edward Ruscha, oral history interview conducted by Paul Karlstrom, 1980-81, transcript page 61, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
4. Numinosity from numen, a presiding spirit or divinity in Roman mythology. William Parker, 1984, from essay for exhibition catalog, The Florida Pictures Show, Florida State University/Institute for Contemporary Art, Tallahassee, FL.
5. Allison Nordstrom, in the essay, Weston and the Post-modernists, for the Spring 2005 issue of Image, the Magazine of George Eastman House.

Since 2010, Cynthia Hollis is the executive director of Tallahassee non-profit 621 Gallery. Previously she was director of the Millstone Institute for Preservation in Tallahassee (2008-2010) and the art division director and curator at the Brogan Museum in Tallahassee (1999-2008). Hollis has a BFA from Bard College and an MAA and PhD from Florida State University.

With thirty years of experience in photography, mixed media sculpture and installations, George Blakely is primarily interested in working with students on content-based and conceptual ideas. He has shown in over 300 exhibitions in almost every state in the country and has been a professor of Art at FSU since 1978.
Editor’s Note: I approached Cynthia Hollis to write a historical essay following Blakely’s work since she first met him in the mid 1990s. In pursuit of featuring work that significantly contributes to cultural discourse, as well as our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose, instead of exclude, any potential conflicts of interest.


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