Ed Blackburn

The Old Jail Art Center

Peter S Briggs

Ed Blackburn, Portrait, 2011; archival digital print; 17 x 22 inches; edition 1 of 3; courtesy the artist and The Old Jail Art Center, Albany

Karzai and Hillary, 2010; acrylic on canvas; 48 x 58 inches and 45 x 36 inches, diptych; courtesy the artist and The Old Jail Art Center, Albany

Jumping Across (The River), Ed Blackburn’s exhibition of four painted diptychs and seven digital prints (all from the last two years) at The Old Jail Art Center, rings familiar. Decades of written words about this Fort Worth-based artist’s Pop precedents, art historical and cinematic references, political innuendos, fluent painting skills and conceptual ironies might all be reasonably resurrected. Indeed, each of these matters provides germane talking points about the works on view.

However, something more is afoot. In the 1970s Blackburn occasionally included text in his paintings. He more or less dispensed with this in the 1980s, but about five years ago he reintroduced text as a separate component in his diptychs. These newer, word-packed canvases feature short paragraphs of unattributed pulp-fiction vignettes, rendered in straitlaced Arial type, painted coolly but not mechanically. Blackburn’s stories skip fleetingly among guy-gal romance, fast cars, guns and money. These Argosy-like narratives are as conventional as the mass-media images he reinvents as paintings on partner canvases. Bonds between text and image in each diptych shift as Blackburn manipulates their physical relationships. At times companion canvases seamlessly abut; in other cases, conspicuous space separates paired works of varying dimensions. Sidestepping the anomalies might help squeeze some literal connections between text and image, but such endeavors easily spin out of control, like his anonymously abridged narrations—for example, a detail from Karzai and Hillary (2010): “‘Slow down, Frank,’ said the woman. ‘It’s getting icy.’ The man lit a cigarette. ‘Get ’n back, Delores,’ he told her. ‘Count the money. You’re making me nervous.’”

Blackburn’s abandonment of a narrative imperative offers an opportunity to glimpse painting as a re-creative endeavor. Whether one focuses on his depictions of image or text, the construction of visual or metaphorical relationships is undressed. This exposure grounds efforts to provide order through language, to make sense of things by forging patterns of words and images that point toward insights, explanations and descriptions…like this review. Confronted with the disorder of Blackburn’s disparate words and images, one might contentedly reconfigure them into some spatially and temporally linked series that has the authority of cause and effect. His serial-based images and fictional narratives pictorially hijack that desire and toss viewers into less bounded territory.

Blackburn’s computer-manipulated prints accomplish the same end with slightly different methods. Early 1960s film stills, saturated bright geometries of Photoshop-filled shapes and titles that resound with traditional matters of image-making, e.g., Portrait (2011), Time (2010) and Landscape (2011), wrestle, in the artist’s words, with “preconceived perceptions.” The incongruities of Blackburn’s digitized hybrid pictures nudge at fickle expectations for meaning.

Blackburn chides the vanity of viewers’ fictions and interrupts rational or historical linkages from one event to another. His perplexing non sequiturs jab at the comfort of causality. Such humor can be humbling. It disorients. Blackburn, however, teases such functionality not as a reprimand but as a conditional reminder. Ironically, in order to understand how we construct experience from his artworks, we fabricate proxy narrations, like this exhibition.

Peter S Briggs, a curator and art historian, lives in Lubbock, Texas.

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