States of Things, Indeed
Christopher Blay deconstructs texts and, in the process, atomizes the local art scene.
By ANTHONY MARIANI
Local multi-media artist Christopher Blay held his most recent exhibition in an abandoned Southside warehouse. To enter the makeshift gallery, you had to duck beneath a partially raised garage door. The cavernous space was an appropriately sober, idiosyncratic setting for Blay’s intellectual yet oddly lyrical work. An epic, hydra-headed, found-object installation exhibit, states of things: a flusserian model of photography consisted of the exo-skeletons of several wooden photo booths, plus a centerpiece whose dozens of empty darkroom chemical bottles quietly articulated its anti-theme. The show (which, unfortunately, is no longer on view) carefully and humbly exploited the obvious yet rarely acknowledged loophole in conceptual art: Condescension toward viewers trumps compassion for them every time.
states of things was interactive — viewers were encouraged to sit inside the booths, and, if he was available, Blay gladly explained the show’s conceptual underpinnings, the writings of the late European philosopher Vilém Flusser whose surname appears in the title. (Too academic to try to explain here, Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography essentially riffs on the age-old argument that a photo is much more than a historical document and should be recognized, evaluated, and appreciated accordingly, as a unique universe to itself.)
Even though states of things relied on viewers to fill in the blanks in the stories to which it provided various beginnings and endings, the exhibit consistently maintained its detached comportment. While most other conceptual works leap out from their shady rhetorical hiding places and pounce on viewers, states of things sat back nice and easy and invited dialogue politely.
In the spirit of the great American raconteurs, the photo booths rewarded close, patient attention. In place of the viewfinders were three-dimensional tableaux — jungles of wires, drawings and cut-outs, photos of the artist. Each booth also represented a different stage of Flusser’s argument, a dense jumble of explanation that, honestly, made sense only when the good-natured Blay peeked his head through the curtains to connect the theoretical dots for you.
Though a gracious host, Blay was superfluous when the viewer’s gaze rested upon the centerpiece. Some of the white-ish bottles of “First Order Abstraction” lay on a colorful quilt on the floor, while others hung from invisible wires from the ceiling. Together, the objects’ upward flow — coupled with their votive candle-like shapes — suggested ascension, from a gritty, personal sanctum of reality in plain ol’ Fort Worth to the mind’s eye, somewhere in the Empyrean.
Blay is driven by an almost wide-eyed fascination with the medium of photography. His constant search for new answers to old questions and new questions to old answers often results in a full-bodied exhibit; since moving to Fort Worth from Houston more than a decade ago to study with master photographer Peter Feresten and earn his BFA from Texas Christian University, Blay has exhibited at a steady clip. That the artist feels no shame in laying bare the blueprints, tools, and results of his inquires speaks to his most winning attribute, one that’s quite rare in North Texas art circles: bravery.
There are about a dozen local visual artists who can manipulate paintbrushes as well as if not more deftly than some of contemporary art’s stars. The main reason Cowtown’s bright lights aren’t mugging for Artforum magazine or exhibiting at the Gagosian probably has everything to do with their lack of connections, money, and good luck. Yet another, less distinct possibility is that the locals either have tired of self-inquiry or could always paint their ways out of constricting banality by sheer brute force. (They’ve built their careers on producing often beautiful yet rather conservative work.) Have our contemporary art stars stopped challenging themselves? Have they run out of reasons to prove themselves? Are they no longer hungry?
What is inarguable is that Christopher Blay is hungry, and something tells me that even if he starts getting noticed — and fed heartily for his inventiveness — he’ll still produce art as if he’s never once dined on the lotus of self-satisfaction.
You can reach Anthony Mariani at
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