Emile, Man of the Future, 2016-17, barely even looks like a man. The large photograph, installed in Lucas Blalock’s first solo museum show, at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in downtown Los Angeles through July 21, is more like a vaguely figurative set of incisions balancing on a collapsed chair. The image faces you as soon as you enter Blalock’s show, titled An Enormous Oar after a phrase in Constance De Jong’s genre-blurring 1975 novel Modern Love. It hangs beside Switchboard, 2015-16, a photograph of metal mailboxes with black swirls, loosely resembling the cords of an old-fashioned switchboard, floating on the surface. “I think the show really started for me with the relationship between these two pictures,” says Blalock, who lives and works in Brooklyn. “It felt like a kind of web of exchanges was going on between the two.” This web is mostly intuitive. The two images mirror and contrast each other in ways both apparent and hard to describe: They are a similar size, with a similarly minimal palette. Emile, though ostensibly of a person, almost resembles a rudimentary machine, while the objects in Switchboard, despite the title, aren’t machines at all. In the former, Blalock used Photoshop to mimic cuts in the image; in the latter, he used Photoshop to draw on top of it. “These stand-ins and reversals,” Blalock explains, “have been the structuring principle of my work in the last five years.”
Instead of putting together a survey, Blalock selected a body of images that spoke to, paralleled, and inverted each other. Exposed metal support beams – rather than a white wall – serve as the only divider in the exhibition, organized by ICA curator Jamillah James, and images hang on each side of these beams. Some works are eye level, others hung high. Certain images repeat exactly, such as the identical prints of flame-like orange sushi grass titled Hell, 2017, and More Hell, 2017, while other repetitions are more approximate, like the same bell-shaped shadow in the right corner of two similarly composed images.
In many ways, Blalock’s oeuvre is familiar – he collapses object and space in the way Robert Cummings does; riffs on the advertiser’s palette with the ease of Elad Lassry or Roe Ethridge; makes the ordinary strange like André Kertész did. He combines techniques and sensibilities, merging the historical preciousness of the photographic object with the tropes of our image-saturated present – using filters, saturation levels, and touch-ups to his own ends. He is not the only one working this way – Michele Abeles and Owen Kydd, among others, jostle around in similar territory – though Blalock’s comic, empathetic, curiously polished approach distinguishes him.
Blalock studied art at Bard College from 1997 to 2001, then spent a few years assisting artist Vik Muniz in New York, while working on his own projects at night. He moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to enroll in UCLA’s MFA program, then returned to New York soon after graduating. From 2010 on, his work repeatedly appeared in exhibitions meant to gauge photography’s changing nature: shows with titles like Photography Is, New Pictures of Common Objects, and Optical Illusions. By the time he entered graduate school, his work already intentionally toyed with the conventions of the photographic space. Circa 2008, he had begun setting up miniature still lifes to photograph in his house daily. “I was thinking a lot about conventional structures and how to play with them,” he recalls. He began reading Bertolt Brecht, whom he often credits with giving him a framework for his approach to images. In essays, the playwright discussed his desire to “reveal the mystery” of the theater by breaking the fourth wall. “He’s talking about the hermetically sealed space of the stage that he wants to interrupt,” says Blalock of Brecht. “I felt like the photographic object, in our moment, was a kind of hermetically sealed stage, and you could make photography that unsealed that seal.”
Blalock’s work from just before and through graduate school had a minimal clarity that later fell away as his pictures became more layered and dense, like strange short stories. He worked, as he still does, with a 4×5 camera, often photographing still lifes made up of mundane objects and less often photographing people. Then he revisited those images in Photoshop. He removed dust, excised whole objects, or color corrected. “I started performing these procedural steps for the labor involved in them,” he recalls, meaning that the steps themselves, rather than their result, came to drive his process, digital gestures becoming like different strokes a painter might use to build up a composition. Our Man Weschler, 2010, features a yellow object partly erased to reveal the wooden shingles behind it. In WMTMMBM, 2011, a loaf of sliced white bread, now a glowing, saturated red, extends across a pristine white background. “It was still a very professional tool,” Blalock recalls of Photoshop at that time. But by 2013, the year he started making the work that appears at the ICA, Instagram had traction, and edited and altered photographs were ubiquitous. Blalock started looking at more paintings, mixing together strategies so fluently that it became harder to tell where the analogue ended and the digital began. For instance, in A Covered Piano, 2016-17, it is clear that certain elements have been digitally cut out and rearranged, but it is not as clear which shadows are true to life and which manipulated.
He leaned away from analogue at a moment when other artists returned to it in earnest, revisiting experiments of early abstract photographers like Moholy-Nagy or Man Ray – Walead Beshty and Phil Chang experimenting with the photogram, Eileen Quinlan experimenting with chemical processes. The revival of process-based fine art photography influenced Blalock, and he, too, mines historical strategies, but abstraction never tempted him. His photographs have always been of objects, bodies, and spaces, and, he says, in some ways about anchoring the tools of Photoshop to the physical realm. “I have a desire to relate these sort of disembodied tools back to a corporeal quality,” he reflects.
One photograph in the ICA exhibition, The Sleepers, stacks different strategies. A photograph within the photograph, set up against a brick wall, shows a simple bedroom. A plastic bag, headphones, and a lamp cord extending from the bedside table lay across the white sheet. In Photoshop, Blalock drew two loose, pink figures floating ghost-like above the bedding. This quick, unrefined digital gesture contrasts the careful composition of the rest of the image, and also feels especially human in its imperfection, like someone drew quickly over the photograph with a bright highlighter. “I really feel like the pictures are about relating – me relating to the world, and then when Photoshop comes into play I’m really trying to amplify those relationships,” he explains.
Instinctive, subconscious logic drives the relationships between the works in the ICA exhibition. Box, 2014, hot dogs forming an imperfect square against an off-white surface, hangs adjacent to House Guest, 2018, a collage-like image of a flattened dog figure. “The making of the work has a lot more to do with a kind of idiosyncratic relational empathy – there’s a lot of humor, a lot of melancholy, a lot of body issues,” says Blalock. In The Occupant, 2016, of a door and mirror in a carpeted hallway, little confetti-like marks suggest the outline of a human figure. In An Other Shadow, 2014-16, the longer and more dramatic shadow cast by the rudimentary sculptural object has been added post-production. These moments of unreality manifest like subtle sci-fi plot points.
Blalock’s titles always come last, after the work is done, and the humor they add is a kind of final layer. “I’m more interested in the language being a third party in the room,” he says. “There’s you and the picture and then this funny piece of language.” He has been thinking more lately about how images and ideas can inhabit dimensional space. As he prepares to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial (opening May 17), he has been working with 3D tools in Photoshop and experimenting with virtual reality. “My categories have gotten kind of squishy,” he says. “I feel like photography for me has been that structure for a long time, and it’s been really interesting for me to stretch it and use it and kick around in it. I’m not making things that aren’t photographs. But as it’s gone on, it’s changed so much.”