If you live in the tri-state area and are on Instagram or FaceBook for even a few minutes a day, there is very little chance that you have not at least heard the name Fotografiska. Viral marketing ads for the NYC branch of this museum dedicated to modern photography were plastered all over social media for months prior to its opening to the public on December 14th, 2019. The cryptic ads featured dark, purple-shadowed images of the seven-story Gothic structure (built in 1892) housing the museum, which made it seem very mysterious and alluring. Everyone wanted to know: What the Hell is Fotografiska? Some people still can’t figure it out.
I finally had a chance to visit Fotografiska on March 5th, when I was invited to attend the opening reception for an exhibit by Julie Blackmon entitled Fever Dreams. One week after my visit, Fotografiska was forced to temporarily close its doors in compliance with New York State’s shelter-in-place order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
My original plan had been to post a review of the Julie Blackmon exhibit in mid-March, to coincided with the celebration of National Women’s Month. But like so many of us on the planet, my life is completely different now than it was three or four weeks ago, so that did not happen. An up-side of being stuck in the house without the ability to visit an art gallery, or museum or cultural institution of any kind is that I get to bring you my take on Art in the Time of Covid right here on The Gig. Even though you cannot currently visit these exhibits in person, you can ‘Live Through Me’ and enjoy the photos vicariously. I hope this post will give you a sweet taste of what’s inside Fotografiska that will get you excited to check out the place once it reopens. Better late than never.
This was my first ‘exposure,’ so to speak, to Julie Blackmon’s work, but I immediately fell in love with her hyper-realist style. Fever Dreams is a collection of images that brim with fantasy and subtle satire, capturing a delicate balance between the darkness and charm of contemporary American life. It’s not unusual for a gallery to stage an exhibit in dim lighting, but this one is designed to be viewed almost completely in the dark, save for a bit of light bleeding in from an adjacent gallery, and dedicated spotlights focused on each work. While the lack of lighting presented a challenge in capturing decent images of the photos, it definitely set an important mood, which enhanced the viewing experience.
Adding to the surreal vibe of Fever Dreams was the wall-to-wall astroturf covering the gallery floors, which included this singular artificial Dandelion Puff. You will understand in a minute why it was helpful to feel like you were standing in someone’s backyard.
The playfully artful and chaotic nature present in the photographs of Julie Blackmon (b. 1966) are drawn from the everyday people and places that have shaped the artist’s life. These are the familiar and ordinary scenes of Blackmon’s daily routine in her hometown of Springfield, Missouri, which she describes as “the generic American town” in the middle of the United States.
Her scenes are often centered around children on their own in backyards, garages and neighborhoods where the absence of adults alludes to a looming potential for danger. Her photographs, otherwise innocuous domestic tableaux, are woven with fantasy and subtle satire that reflect a delicate balance between the darkness and charm of contemporary American life in suburbia.
One my favorite photos in the collection is this scene of children watching a screening of The Sound Of Music in a backyard. To me, it has an almost post-apocalyptic feel. Blackmon carefully sets her scenes, and like film and theater directors, she is in pursuit of unscripted moments that provoke, disturb, and challenged the viewer. Some of the images reference paintings by Dutch Masters, French impressionist, and modernists such as Edward Hopper and Balthus, but they are updated with a satirical, penetrating eye and Blackmon’s belief that artful fiction can capture the truth more memorably than the truth itself.
Speaking of her work, Blackmon explains, “I suppose I could make a work where everything’s just perfect, where the sun is shining and mom is lying out in the grass and everything’s happening perfectly and the kids are happy . . . but that wouldn’t interest me — and it wouldn’t be truthful. My aim is to create a more nuanced, subtly humorous and satirical portrait of the way we live today.”
Fever Dreams presents a selection of photographs from Blackmon’s Homegrown series as well as more recent works. It’s a fantastic exhibit and I hope its tenure at Fotografiska can be extended so that more people get to see it.
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