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Art Notes: Photographs Balance Childhood Innocence and Darker Narrative Possibilities

  • "Book Club," a photograph by Julie Blackmon, is among the works on view in "The Everyday Fantastic," an exhibition of Blackmon's work at the Hood Downtown in Hanover.

  • "Holiday," a photograph by Julie Blackmon, is among the works on view in "The Everyday Fantastic," an exhibition of Blackmon's photographs at the Hood Downtown in Hanover.

  • "New Chair," a photograph by Julie Blackmon, is among the works on view in "The Everyday Fantastic," an exhibition of Blackmon's photographs at the Hood Downtown in Hanover.



Valley News Staff Writers
Thursday, June 08, 2017

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, best known for his psychological thrillers, felt it was important to distinguish between the suspenseful and the merely surprising.

Surprise, he said, is when a bomb goes off without the audience knowing it’s coming: “Prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene of no special consequence.” Suspense, on the other hand, is when “the bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there.”

But the photographer Julie Blackmon, whose exhibit on the theme of “The Everyday Fantastic” opens at the Hood Downtown on Friday, complicates Hitchcock’s black-and-white conception of these narrative devices. Not only does Blackmon’s work create suspense in scenes that Hitchcock might write off as “absolutely ordinary,” but this suspense also hinges on the element of surprise that the great filmmaker seemed to hold in disdain. The seemingly mundane props in Blackmon’s scenes — houses, storefronts, children’s toys — are of “no special consequence,” until, unexpectedly, they are.

In other words, her photographs depict such apparent ordinariness that to realize they are suspenseful comes as a surprise.

The Hood Downtown exhibit draws from Blackmon’s latest collection, aptly titled Homegrown: It’s set against the suburban backdrop of her native Springfield, Mo., and frequently depicts the numerous young, fair-haired people in her own family; nieces and nephews and cousins. There was a time when she used her own children, but they’re grown now.

“The way I see it, there are generally two types of photographers, and I’ll use an anthropological metaphor here,” said John Stomberg, director of the Hood Museum of Art, who curated the exhibit and provided the copies of Blackmon’s images on which this review is based.

“There are the hunter-gatherers,” who venture out into the world in search of their subjects, he said. And then there are the “agrarian photographers,” who grow their own subject matter from the materials already at their disposal.

Blackmon’s work places her firmly in the latter camp. She mines that which is familiar to her, and probably familiar to anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with young children: that whatever happens when the grownups turn their backs, even just for a moment, can veer toward tragedy or comedy. It can also, as Blackmon’s work asserts, contain some combination of the two.

Though her scenes are almost theatrically staged, chock full of signifiers that often seem to convey deliberate messages, they’re also the product of serendipity.

“Filmmakers have always found that even when you have an idea of what you want to have happen, you can’t be so attached to that idea that you’re not open to what might happen along the way,” Blackmon said in a phone interview from her home in Missouri this week. “Especially with kids, who aren’t actors. It just comes down to kind of hoping that the gods of chance or whatever are on your side.”

And this is what makes Blackmon’s work so captivating: It’s perched in that moment of uncertainty, of guesswork, of the haphazardness of childrearing despite all best-laid plans. Her most interesting photographs capture a moment in between an action and its consequence — after something has happened, but before we can know what it is, or what to make of it.

Holiday (2016), for example, depicts an off-white, one-story house, with two young children peering out the window. Carefully placed props offer clues as to the time of year: There’s a rotting pumpkin on the stoop, and a string of Christmas lights strewn across the roof and driveway, though it is not clear if the lights are about to go up or have just come down. Late November, perhaps, or early January? The trees are bare and the grass looks dry.

But the Hitchcockian bomb in the photograph is also one that is almost obscured from the camera’s lens: Two hands are grasping at the top of the roof, though we cannot see the hands’ owner. This produces a low-grade anxiety: Has someone fallen (if so, who)? Is someone trying to scale the roof from behind (if so, why)? Is anybody watching the kids? What time of year is it, anyway? Will everything be okay?

“There’s usually a minor detail in her photographs that, once you notice it, signals an warning bell to go off in your head. All of a sudden, the whole scene becomes totally fraught,” Stomberg said. “You think it’s just about quiet domestic life, but then there’s something that disrupts that quietness.”

It also negates the illusion of it. By stranding Holiday in such undefined territory — somewhere between autumn and mid-winter, and somewhere between accident and ordinary — Blackmon creates both suspense and surprise: surprise, because you’re not likely to notice the hands on the roof right off the bat; and suspense, because once you notice those hands, you know something the children might not. Whether you’re seeing something of any consequence is another question entirely.

In New Chair (2014), in which a gaggle of blonde kids gather around a FedEx truck to watch a sleek, vaguely C-shaped seat slide down the ramp, the adults are also noticeably absent. There’s a FedEx delivery man, but his face is shadowed by the interior of his truck; someone’s legs (a mother’s?) are visible under a halfway-raised (or lowered?) garage door. One of the kids has some bubble wrap around his head, but seems fine and not at all suffocating, for the time being. It’s at once lighthearted and unnerving, and a reminder that some of life’s most stressful situations are also the ones it helps to find humor in, if only to cope.

These chaotic scenes are reminiscent of those depicted by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Steen, whom Blackmon has cited as a major influence. Steen packed his paintings with a similar domestic entropy, the details of which border on the whimsical; a mischievous baby here, a hammered reveler there, and little to no direct adult supervision anywhere.

“What I saw in those paintings just kind of struck me,” she said. “They’re 400 years old, but they were almost funny … and so I started thinking: Why can’t I mix it up? I don’t think photographers have to take ourselves so seriously.”

But unlike Steen’s paintings, Blackmon’s photography doesn’t condemn neglectful parenting, or naughty kids; rather than moralizing, Blackmon’s jabs at parenting come off as compassionately irreverent. In this way, Homegrown leans “towards social commentary — oftentimes on the conflicting expectations of women,” Blackmon wrote in a press interview with Stomberg. “I realized that I could say much more about, for example, the absent mother by not having her pictured, and the kids became metaphorical for a psychological state.”

Not all the pictures are explicitly about parenting, though. In Book Club (2012), a group of women have gathered in a room together (as in many of the photographs in “The Everyday Fantastic,” only legs and arms of the grownups are in the frame), discussing Fifty Shades of Grey. This detail is one of the few instances that ground Blackmon’s work in a specific era; like Steen’s paintings, her work is often read as possessing a certain timelessness. You would be hard-pressed to find any references to the Internet or technology, which are surely a part of most American childhoods by now.

This is especially interesting, because Blackmon is an unabashed fan of certain technological implements herself. Though she is aware that some consider Photoshop a form of cheating, she does not shy away from it as a tool — and in fact, she embraces its potential to help bring a certain story or vision to light.

“Everybody’s mad at Photoshop. They equate it with a lie,” Blackmon said. “But you cannot create a work, you cannot create the expression of a moment, with just Photoshop. It’s just a tool, and I think it’s been an overly demonized tool.”

She eschews the tendency for people to call into question the tools she chooses to employ. “I don’t ever want my work to be read as a sum of its parts,” she said. “This is my piece. I don’t want it to be about the process. I want it to be about the final form.”

That final form has been conceived and edited with an eye for detail and subtle humor, upending the notion that domestic life is orderly, or should even aspire to be. As the 20th-century poet Elizabeth Bishop advises in One Art, Blackmon’s photography “accept(s) the fluster” of scattered toys, melted popsicles, mismatching decor. With the homegrown chaos of domesticity as her subject matter, Blackmon zooms in on those small wonders and mysteries that are so easy to overlook, and yet compose the stuff of daily life — surprises and all.

“The Everyday Fantastic,” photographs by Julie Blackmon opens at the Hood Downtown on Friday, and will be on view through Aug. 27. Blackmon will attend the public reception at the gallery on June 20, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Openings and Receptions

The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester is honoring artist, and former Dartmouth College professor of art, Varujan Boghosian with a retrospective of his work, “The Curious Magic of Varujan Boghosian.” The show opens Saturday and runs through Sept. 4. Boghosian will be at the museum Sunday for an ARTalk at 2 p.m. with curator Kurt Sundstrom. For more information go to currier.org or call 603-669-6144.

Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon is exhibiting pastel still lifes and landscapes by Canaan artist Susan Pearson. An opening reception is planned for Thursday, June 29, from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit will run through Sept. 30.

Of Note

Rosamund Purcell, the Cambridge, Mass. photographer who is well-known for her elegiac studies of dead birds and animals, skulls, shells and other specimens, will read from her new book Owl’s Head on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt. The book is about her long friendship with William Buckminster, a Maine collector of, well, everything. An exhibition of Purcell’s photographs runs through July 29 at BigTown, and the gallery shows prints and sculpture by the late Hugh Townley through Sept. 10.

Art Classes

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction is offering a class on collagraphy taught by Nori Pepi on Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost is $225, plus a $30 materials fee.

On June 24 and 25, printmaker Brian D. Cohen will lead a workshop on drypoint printing. The fee is $225. To register go to trps@sover.net, or call 802-295-5901.

Ongoing

ArtisTree Gallery, Pomfret. “The Syrian Experience as Art,” a traveling exhibition of work by 11 Syrian artists reflecting on their country’s civil war and refugee crisis, continues through June 24.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. “These Green Mountains,” an exhibition of work by Vermont artists and artisans, runs through June 17.

Center for the Arts, Lake Sunapee. The CFA sponsors three exhibitions in the Lake Sunapee region. An exhibition of landscape photography by James Mudie and photographs of flowers by Richard Gulezian is on view at the Lake Sunapee Bank’s micro gallery. Mary Beth Westward exhibits landscapes at Whipple Hall in New London. The second annual Center for the Arts exhibition, featuring oil, watercolor and acrylic paintings, as well as drawings and mixed media, is on view at the New London Inn. The shows end July 29.

Cider Hill Art Gallery, Windsor. Sculpture, painting and environmental installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith, the Mythmakers and Gary Milek are on view this summer.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. The Betty Grant Gallery exhibits work by students from the Lyme School through June 22. A reception is planned for June 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. “Shedding Light on the Northern Forest,” a show of paintings by Kathleen Kolb with poetry by Verandah Porche, is on view in the Endoscopy Hallway Gallery, Level 4, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, through June. Also on view at the hospital are: the annual employee and volunteer art show; paintings by Helen Shulman and Annette Jaret; photographs by Ron Levenson and paintings by Patricia Sweet-MacDonald.

Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vt. “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” a show of more than 80 paintings on the subject of romantic and sexual love; “Ready. Fire! Aim,” a collaboration between the foundation and Burlington City Arts; and a solo show by David Shrigley run through Nov. 26.

Hopkins Center, Hanover. The Dartmouth Department of Studio Art ends the year with an exhibition of art by 19 graduating seniors who have majored in art. Their work is being shown in the Hopkins Center’s Jaffe-Friede and Strauss galleries and also in the Nearburg Gallery and Arts Forum at the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Through June 18.

Howe Library, Hanover. Stephanie Gordon, who teaches art at Hanover High School, exhibits work in “80 Degrees: Encaustic Paintings” in the Ledyard Gallery. The show runs through Aug. 2.

League of N.H. Craftsmen Hanover Fine Craft Gallery. The gallery exhibits works by jeweler Deirdre Donnelly and fiber artist Tarja Cockell through June.

Long River Gallery and Gifts, White River Junction. Prints by Elizabeth Mayor are on view through July 6. Mayor’s work is also up at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in the TipTop Building in White River Junction.

Norwich Public Library. A show of work by elementary school students from throughout the Upper Valley. The show closes June 30.

OSHER at Dartmouth, Hanover. Margaret Sheehan and Cindy Heath exhibit fiber art through June 28.

Philip Read Memorial Library, Plainfield. Prints by East Barnard artist Sabra Field are on view through July 1.

Roth Center, Hanover. Artist and textile designer Shari Boraz shows her works in “Continuing Explorations in Fiber” through June 18.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. “Frances & Friends,” an exhibition of fiber crafts, paintings, photographs, and drawings by six South Royalton-area artists is up is through July 14.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. An exhibit of large-scale, multi-media constructions by Brooklyn artist Katie Bell, who was a 2016 Saint-Gaudens Fellow, is in the Picture Gallery through July 16. There will be a reception on June 24, from 4:30 to 6 p.m.; Bell will give a talk at 5 p.m.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. The gallery shows woodcuts and handmade wooden serving spoons by Norwich farmer, writer and artist Suzanne Lupien.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Works by Elizabeth Mayor are on view through July 31. There will be a reception on July 7 from 6 to 8 p.m.

White River Gallery, South Royalton. W. David Powell, of Underhill, Vt., shows his work in the exhibition “The Golden Era of the New Dawn.” Through July 1.

Zollikofer Gallery, White River Junction. The “God & Pony Show,” which brings together prints by W. David Powell and the mixed-media collages of Deluxe Unlimited, the nom d’art of Corinth native Ben Peberdy, continues through July 12.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216. Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.