Jeremy Blake may as well be Orwell himself. If any society is ascetically paranoid of new technology, it's the art world. But for the New York-based artist, computer-based tools are just more colors on the palette of possibility.
“If you're a musician, would you really be offended by a new instrument?” asks the Cal Arts graduate.
“Whereas traditional painting is like an acoustic guitar, this new technology is like an electric guitar. It gets louder and has its limitations, but for me it has a great look and it's kind of keeping with the electric music I grew up with.”
Blake often explains his flowing, freeform abstractions in musical terms. He's a big fan of the subtle concept album, he says, where some specific information is given to the listener. But the listener also intuitively feels that there's something not filled in-something abstract that they need to identify for themselves.
“In art there's always been this distinction between realism and abstraction, and that breaks down in music because of it being more intuitive,” he says. “So I use that musical model when I make the piece, thinking about which part is going to be realistic and which part is going to be abstract, like people do when putting together a record.
“There's a loose story, but I deliberately don't tighten it up, leaving room for abstraction, leaving room for the things I like about abstract painting-to have a moment.”
Some influential organizations are enjoying Blake's “moments” and lavishing the young visionary with praise and, more importantly, exhibit space. The Whitney Museum of American Art has featured him in two of its biennial events as well as its “BitStreams” digital and technological art event. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has showcased his work as part of 010101, another emerging techno-media project.
He was included in NYC's Museum of Modern Art's Greater New York, which focused attention on the city's promising young talents. More recently, he collaborated on the album artwork for the new release by musical collagist and kindred spirit-Beck. Blake is especially proud, however, of the “hallucinatory scenes” he created for the luminous Paul-Thomas Anderson's new film, Punch-Drunk Love.
“When the main character has a complicated set of feelings, there is just a rush of my work,” he elucidates. “It's a way of using imagery to get into people's psychological complexities without explaining them away. It leaves the mystery but is still compelling.”
It's easy to identify how the 30-year-old modern abstractionist has gained this increasing amount of acclaim. He has an exquisite ability to reconcile the seemingly sterile world of digital imagery with the warmth of the painted picture. While working within the confines of the capriciously titled “new-media” genre, his work transcends the label by exuding a sensuality and emotionalism that defies most technology-based artists.
It's no surprise. Blake isn't a pragmatic, number-based techno type trying to kindle his hidden creativity. He's old- school, trained in “traditional” painting and learning code as he goes.
“The distinction is that you are seeing someone here who is trained in painting and knows its history but is not afraid to take on something that may not be very well understood in the traditional art world at the moment,” Blake explains.
“I'm just trying to make some noise with this thing, so to speak, and doing it visually. When I feel something I want to express it visually, so it's extremely emotional work.”
Blake is attempting to convey that emotion, albeit in a much darker sense, with his new Winchester project. He toiled endlessly on this grim piece, which is based on the madness that enveloped poor rifle heiress, Sara Winchester.
After the death of her husband and daughter in the 1800s, Winchester consulted spiritual advisors on how to ease her sorrow. One advisor warned that the vengeful ghosts of those who had been killed by her husband's guns would haunt her. The only way to appease the spirits was perpetual construction on their San Jose mansion.
Winchester spent 38 years and millions of dollars on bizarrely intricate additions. Endless intricately shaped wings, staircases that lead to dead ends, 47 fireplaces and other oddities make the house an architectural wonder. The place itself, though, was only the jumping-off point for Blake's work.
“You don't really have to go the house or understand the history of the house to appreciate the piece,” he says. “If you've ever had a complicated set of feelings, like being scared and excited all at once, then you'll get something out of this work.
“Instead of giving a tour of the house on film, I thought I would give them a tour of the abstract stuff they don't see, the fearsome stuff that is working on this woman's mind to build this sort of erratic structure-what it would look like to be that freaked out.”
By juxtaposing ghostly images over manipulated photography, Blake has created a haunting new vision of melancholy and insanity. It is done in a way that, while far from concrete, still draws the viewer into its dire austerity. The artist fully appreciates the reverberations this work has on its viewers.
“It's done in this new kind of abstract expressionism, where I'm really hurling things at you,” he contends. “Emotionally, its the strongest, most direct thing I've done.”