Jeremy Blake is an indie rocker’s favorite art star. He created the swirling colors that frame Beck’s precious face on his Sea Change album cover, as well as penning the visuals for Beck’s recent collaborative tour with The Flaming Lips. Blake is in the movies too, having signified with digital color the emotional breaks for Adam Sandler’s character in über-hipster P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. Lucky for us, Jeremy Blake is in good company—he isn’t just another poseur wearing Chuck Taylors with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel—there’s plenty of substance behind the style.
After finishing undergraduate work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate work at Cal Arts, straddling Greenberg and McLuhan, Olitski and Paik, Blake’s digital paintings have gained him international fame. These works have called Robert Ryman to task: painting is not dead and we can thank (blame?) Jeremy Blake for the resurrection. I interviewed Blake via email for my graduate thesis, “Video After Painting,” last spring. Here’s an excerpt:
Katie Geha: You named one of your first shows mod-lang. Is that shorthand for “modernist language?”
Jeremy Blake: It’s taken from a song by the ’70s band, Big Star. It’s a title that I like because it would seem to indicate a commitment to modernist precedent, but also because of the abbreviation, that this is not a slavish commitment. Mods, mod teenagers in England, were the first to abbreviate the term modernist, so I’m just continuing that, and adding an abbreviation of language as well. The idea being emphasized here is that as an artist, I am taking from the past, but also editing freely precedent that doesn’t work for me.
KG: In your lecture you talked about your art as taking on psychedelia, a form you said acted as a profusion of images that are non-hierarchical. I’m wondering then, what sort of role, if any, does narrative play in your work?
JB: The idea for me is to open up a flow of images which enable a range of interpretation wide enough to be exciting and even “mind bending,” but not so wide that it is just hedonistic. That said, there is no central figure or law which is upheld in my work. To contrast my approach, an example of some really exciting contemporary work which does revolve around a central figure is Matthew Barney’s, which at least for the length of the Cremaster Cycle, posits him as a figure from whom meaning can be derived and whose every gesture and costume choice is meant to have a specific significance, sort of like performers as Sun King. Therefore, even though Barney uses a profusion of dreamlike images, I wouldn’t call his work psychedelic, I’d call it something more like Neo-Baroque. My work presents a democracy of images, clashing and competing and spoofing each other. I am also interested in representing synesthesia, a confusion of the senses where one hears color, sees sounds, etc. This interest justifies my occasional use of the word “psychedelic” as a descriptive term for what I’m after. Narrative is there in my DVD work, but it’s deliberately dreamlike, so it’s more open to interpretation than most novels or films, although there are many exceptions to this generalization obviously.
KG: Can you talk a little about how painting influenced you, yet why you did not become a painter? Also, explain your return to painting after the DVD work. What could painting do that your DVDs couldn’t?
JB: The thing that used to frustrate me about painting is something that I’ve come to terms with now, and that is how painfully incremental innovation is within the arena of traditional painting. Some contemporary people feel fresh on canvas; Laura Owens is a great example, but, in general, because of its awesome and imposing history, painters are forced to split hairs in order to offer anything new. With my DVDs, I developed a way to work, which preserved what I had learned from painting, but also offered up experiences that were much more present-day and much less historically “pissed on.” It was also satisfying to make painterly phenomena occur over time, and also confound easy interpretation of painterly abstraction by housing it within various types of representational space, without giving up on pure abstraction, moments of pure abstraction at least. When all that was accomplished, I could go back to painting and make whatever silly, fun, self-referential shit I wanted; and I made that work with the DVDs by making the installation into a filmic experience of sorts. The idea was to get the same painting/film tension going on canvas that I had on DVD, and I think it’s working really well so far, although there is a lot of room for improving this as I go.
KG: In my thesis I discuss the death of painting and Arthur Danto’s claim that when art died it turned into philosophy. I am thinking about this in relation to something you said in the recent Artforum discussion: “That’s what abstraction means to me: the visual demonstration of philosophical nuance.” By “philosophical nuance,” are you referring to the act of abstraction calling up multiple images, how those images are subjective and thus do not work on a closed system?
JB: My emphasis on the importance of dreamlike delivery, and my emphasis on creating systems of images which have a demanding but hopefully enjoyable complexity, comes partially out of an interest in psychoanalytic theory, and also in people like Nietzsche and Deleuze who valued freedom of interpretation so much so that to protect it by allowing for complexity is, for each of them, an ethical position in itself. That said, I don’t have any sworn allegiances to creating work in a particular philosophical mode, but perhaps that qualifies as being a good Nietzschian after all is said and done, since his worst fear was having slavish devotees.
Many American post-war abstract painters took a rigorously limited and iconic approach to representing complex ideas. A great example is Barnett Newman, who really wanted to reorient himself ethically and theologically through painting—this in part as an attempt to deal with the implications of the Holocaust. Abstraction was an ethical way for him to deal with (at times) religious imagery without pre-loaded and therefore oppressive symbols (for example, a cross). For him, after the swastika, to use a symbol like the cross would have been regressive and even dangerous. A problem arose for such high-minded abstraction over time, though, since as it was digested by the culture it ran the risk of either becoming wallpaper, or a set of new symbols to worship. In other words, an artist’s work, especially abstract imagery, needs to be protected from losing meaning entirely on the one hand, and having a very narrow meaning forced upon it on the other.
So my DVD work, when it is abstract, attempts to unlock abstract imagery from the historical constant of the canvas, and treats it more like a special effect than a fixed icon. For example, a Newman zip might appear inside a haunted house or on a Malibu hillside. It might appear in silence or with a disturbing sound or a pleasant sound. I can lend the zip new meaning that I assign it, or try to demonstrate that it is just a ghost or a mirage, which would in turn project another larger set of implications.
At any rate, I’ve tried to work in a way so that Newman’s ideas, or any ideas I want to bring forward, can be referenced at any time without locking everything down in irony or in a tedious devotion to precedent or even in a specific style. Being totally ironic on the one hand, or a slavish devotee on the other, would just make for boring and second-rate art. To me, this attempt to keep things vital and open to new interpretation is an ethical approach to making art that actually is more in keeping with the rigorous spirit of post-war abstraction than it would be for me to simply imitate that work or to dismiss it.
I’ve been talking about my relationship to post-war American abstract painting here in order to provide an example, but my relationship to precedent in general is very similar.
KG: Painting, or at least modernist painting, has been understood at times as a type of fetishized art object. Your work seems to elude this as you lend your work to commercial films and music. Can you talk about these choices a bit?
JB: My work is a potential fetish for those that might tend to fetishize things like movement, sound, genre- busting complexity, free association, phantom presence, etc. I rarely land in a place which is as readily fetishized by traditionalists, as say the smell of turpentine, but my work is no less libidinal. I’d say I’m more directly libidinal in what I do than most painters these days. I do resist excessive amounts of reverence though, sometimes by jumping categories. This might be like the theoretical equivalent of playing hard to get, I suppose, but ultimately you can’t stop people from forming cargo cults around anything which is sold in the market place. People who need to worship might do better elsewhere, it’s true, but drooling perversion is certainly encouraged by my use of material, even, and especially, when the material is projected light.