Quaint Anticipation Of A Famous Phrase, 2017. Oil on Paper. 53" x 65."
KEVIN BLAKE’s chaotic surfaces contain abstract marks, figures, graphic line drawings and worked, textured accumulations of paint that might have been applied with a palette knife. Ultimately this multiplicity of rendering styles serves to underline the intertextuality of American cultural myths inherited from print, television and film. After earning a BFA in Painting and Drawing (2004) and an MA in Art Education (2011) from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kevin went on to earn his MFA in Visual Arts (2014) from The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. What the Cool Pigeon Knows (2017), his first solo exhibition, is currently on view at Riverside Art Center's Flex Space until April 15th. Another solo, Post Celestial Intemperance, will open at The University of Indiana Northwest in Gary, Indiana in November 2017. Kevin is a contributing writer at Bad at Sports and New City. He lives and works in Chicago.
OtherPeoplesPixels: How do you use incomplete images—or voids—and spatial confusion of foreground and background in your work? I see it most in A Pretty Thing of Pure Diversion, but it certainly shows up elsewhere.
Kevin Blake: I remember seeing an engraving by William Hogarth called Satire On False Perspective, which changed the way I make images. With such simple visual devices, Hogarth is able to create a novel connection with the viewer by creating what would later be classified as an “impossible object”—an idea thoroughly explored by the surrealists, Marcel Duchamp, M.C. Escher and many others. When the viewer finds these perspectival errors, impossibilities, or nuances that defy the reality of the image, the idea becomes clearer. The author becomes present in that moment. Suddenly, everything becomes possible in the space, and the clue which sent you back into the image to review it as an object infused with an idea (rather than a picture about ideas), begins to betray its secrets.
Eventually, the image unfolds completely to reveal a dialogue that you've been engaged with in your own mind. When I found Hogarth’s etching, I could see myself following the sign posts in the image, just the way they are aesthetically set up to do. I could see myself standing back and watching it all happen. I remember this being the first image that somehow took me outside of myself to reveal myself, and it was done through language. Through visual pun. Through cuing a historical visual cannon that makes the definitions for things like the “impossible object,” possible. This image by Hogarth encouraged me to try to understand what it means to communicate with the audience by somehow occupying multiple roles in the making of the image. Storyteller. Painter. Writer. Viewer. Diplomat. Poet. Dreamer. The roles are infinite. The perspectives are infinite. The paintings are an attempt to communicate and highlight the co-presence of history through these various lenses.
Twig of The Hider That Tanned Him, 2016. Oil on Paper. 60" x 84."
OPP: And how does your combination of abstract, gestural marks with figurative representation feed into this multiplicity of perspectives?
KB: I think I’ve gone some distance in explaining the conceptual approach to the kind of fragmentation you suggest is happening in the paint itself, but I think it follows that the aesthetic is born in this mosh pit of ideas. And the paintings certainly are a mosh pit. A garbage heap. A junk closet. Paint slams against drawing. It obliterates the ground it rests on. And within its bounds, ideas rest, waiting for a viewer to bring them to life in their minds. Fragmented space, voids, and confusing perspectives not only support my conceptual framework, but also create and represent a break in the continuity of thought. My work is impulsive. It is reductive. It attempts to capture the viewer at a colloquial baseline in its imagery, and from there, the onion can be delayered—crying eyes and all.
The Desperado Concept, 2014. Mixed Media on Paper. 10" x 10."
OPP: What role does text and textuality play in your work?
KB: Language is the foundation of my work. Well, it’s the foundation of everyone’s work, of course, but I happen to make my bed in it. Whether the text remains simply as a title or it shows up on the canvas, it remains integral to the delivery of the message. Even if the viewer is not taken by the image, the text can make them look again. It is the ego that guarantees the double-take. The mind wants to figure “it” out. I see text as an opportunity to assure re-entry into the visual space. It both guides and deceives. This pause that text creates is very similar to the effect of the strategies I use to deploy paint. The words push the visual elements into different potentialities. They represent by both historical protocol and personal motivation; they are both designative and denotative, representative and connotative. They take us outside of ourselves and back into ourselves. To me, text is a tool and an inseparable working component of my output.
Every Time He Wakes Up, There's Another Mouth to Feed, 2014. Mixed Media on Canvas. 96" x 78."
KB: I named that series Salvaged Mirages for many
reasons, but my favorite is that it is somehow hard to say mirages. Or
it feels like that word should be singular only. Does a mirage so
totally envelop immediate experience that only one mirage can exist at a
time? Again, this simple device creates a break in the continuity of my
thought, just as a mirage of an oasis might disrupt the mind of a
thirsty traveler in the desert. Clever metaphors arise when you attempt
to think about what your own thoughts may have been just a couple years
after making a body of work.
Salvaged Mirages, from 2014, feels both foreign and necessarily my own. As a kid, I never thought about the ideas inherent in the things I consumed—visually or otherwise. No kid thinks about the implications of seeing Rambo obliterate an army, or how Night Rider sculpts the idea of the modern male hero, or how Married. . . With Children instilled the normalcy of disfunction in the familial unit. Though when you look in the mirror as an adult and want to know how this could be what you are seeing, you retrace your steps. All systems teach you to look behind you to understand what’s in front of you, and the inclination to mine that decade’s cultural residue, comes from the never-ending endeavor of trying to know oneself.
Defender of the Flag, 2013. Mixed Media on Panel. 48" x 48"
OPP: Have you gained any specific insights into how these media texts have affected you as an adult?
KB: I wonder if watching MacGyver religiously might have shaped the way that my paintings are made. MacGyver was a bricoleur—using whatever he had at his disposal to solve a problem. No object was without value. All things had multiplicity. Every object carried with it the ability to defy its quotidian value. So the mirage is something you think you see but, upon closer inspection, turns out to not be what you thought it was. However, what is salvaged from the mirage, I think, is whatever happens during the investigation of it. The mirage dissolves, but the picture becomes clear.
He Was On Like A Leech And Off Like A Dart, 2016. Oil on Paper. 18" x 24."
OPP: In The Fisherman’s Fables, I see representations of different kinds of “working”—from domestic and manual laborers to military officers, white-collar workers and pin-up girls—which seem to relate to the myth of the American Dream. How do these visual references to the 1940s, 50s and 60s operate in this work made in 2016-17? What’s the moral lesson in these fables?
KB: This newest series is a direct result of pursuing this
trajectory—of tracking down threads of ideology and looking for the
absolute edges of things. In casting such a wide net, I was forced to
confront the spectrum of affects created by print. For centuries, print
media was the intellectual marketplace in which all ideas were peddled
and consumed. Its affects are responsible for the values that have,
since its inception, become the chorus line of the archetypes I hone in
on in my paintings. The home-grown country boy is one of these
remote-controlled heroes. I collage him into time the way he feels
collaged into my time—into my world of understanding, knowledge, and
exploration. He exists as a kernel of the pastiche of the American
Dream—just as his polarity rounds out the idea at the other end of the
I am interested in these now smoldering images that remain the well from which print-based ideas continue to infiltrate an evolving digital world within the human psyche. The internet has transformed human records. We can now see the stuff in the cracks of our history, the deep fissures that for so long were left unchallenged and unexplored. We can see the thread of our past, like Ariadne following her way out of the labyrinth. Over here and over there, a different vision of the same idea is delivered in high definition and with all the confidence that a culturally sanctioned notion can offer. And every new day brings another perspective that evolves with the everyday task of being alive. The getting older. The work. The stress. The love. The everything. I try to let it all in, and let it all out. Inhaling and exhaling. When I step back from the work, the connected trees of association make their way back to each other, both in the individual paintings and on a macro scale when they hang together. This happens conceptually and aesthetically. At multiple levels. With multiple meanings. I craft them this way. I recognize these places I get to in the mind, in the imagination, and I am reminded once again, that we are living in the co-presence of our history. It doesn’t exist in the books. It cannot be contained by the words. It is scrambled. Always scrambled. And you must go into the imagination, into the mind, into that place with nutpick and toothbrush and work away at it. You have to try to unscramble the letters. That’s what these paintings do. They attempt to brush away a little dust by bringing other times and places into the forefront as a way of trying to understand how that imagery operates in the here and now. In my psyche, as well as the viewer’s.
Old Fruit Ripening Behind Famine Built Walls, 2016. Oil on Paper. 26" x 23."
OPP: I see a menacing, looming threat in a lot of the works, especially those in Last Gas Lamp on the Wagon Road (2013), where white men in dress shirts, military uniforms and cowboy gear wield guns. I see this as a representation of toxic masculinity. Does this relate to "the stuff in the cracks of our history, the deep fissures that for so long were left unchallenged and unexplored?"
KB: Last Gas Lamp on
The Wagon Road was initially called Systems of Attrition For An
American Patriarch. Your intuition serves you well. However, I don't
think toxic masculinity is a social disease that I would qualify as a
phenomena that has fallen into the cracks of our history. This idea has
been, and continues to be, an intolerable symptom that people are more
or less aware exists and rage against. That is not to say it isn't a
clear and present danger to an evolving world. I do think a patriarchal
society is one of many reasons that we have gaps in our history in the
first place. We exist within a perpetually evolving tale that has been
doggedly edited and refined. As human beings are born into this story,
it is the circumstances of the present condition that shape the
character. This reminds me of a Bruce Lee quote where he says something
about pouring water into different containers. His point is that the
water takes the shape of the container, as human beings take the shape
of their surroundings. While I am interested in this idea and how
patriarchy has shaped the world we live in, the thrust of my intention
concerns complexity, in and of itself. I dive into this ocean knowing
I’m not aiming for another coast. My intention is to stay at sea,
floating in the collective debris of humanity. This doesn’t mean that I
don't want to talk about about the issues inherent in the images I make,
it means that I am presenting information in a way that is supposed to
be about trying to parse culture. In this way, I try not to tie my hands
to ideas. It is the mechanism that brings ideas into reality that I
attempt to undermine, distort and project anew.
Breakneck Servility For The Relics of Our Time, 2016. Oil on Paper. 30" x 30."
OPP: You have a show up right now at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, IL) called What The Cool Pigeon Knows. Tell us about the work in the show. What is the underlying current drawing together works in the show?
KB: What The Cool Pigeon Knows, is an extension of the thesis I suggest in The Fisherman’s Fables—all of the paintings are a part of this series. Though, the work for this show was selected specifically for the Riverside Art Center. I’ve been going to shows there for the last couple of years, and I’ve noticed that a majority of the artists I meet there are women. So, I selected work that represented my investigations into female archetypes or their polarities, knowing that it would say more about me than it does about women. I began by thinking about the idea of the reporter which morphed into the informant or stool pigeon. I felt like I was putting my biases, conflicting ideas and ineptitudes on display—both conceptually and aesthetically. I felt like I was snitching on myself for the flaws inherent in the ideas present in the images. I felt like the images were telling myself why I think the way I think. There is a stool in the show with a box full of cut-up paintings sitting atop it, prompting show goers to take a sliver of failure with them. This is the trash heap of ideas from which these paintings are a natural extension. It is the pile of fleeting ideas that form the nexus of my conceptual framework. It is the elephant in the room. It is the stool pigeon.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014) and the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014). She created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Resist the Urge to Press Forward, a two-person show with Brent Fogt, is on view at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) until April 15th, when there will be a closing reception and artist talk. Stacia just completed Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago), which could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse.