Critical Reflections: Julie Blackmon: Domestic Vacations

photo-eye Gallery, <br /> 376-A Garcia Street, Santa Fe

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Anthony Hassett

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Photographer Julie Blackmon once again takes up the theme of hallucinatory suburban interiors in her astutely conceived exhibition Domestic Vacations. Citing Jan Steen and other Flemish painters of chaotic yet exuberant households for inspiration, Blackmon presents a succession of through-the-glass-darkly portraits of environments replete with counterfeit urbanity and stocked with a ferocious assembly of Manhattenized children who occupy her interiors like a sudden torrent of piranhas. With a sometimes chilling luminosity, reminiscent of nineteenth-century superstar neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot's photographs of "hysterics"€ from his sprawling, garrison-like asylum at Salpetrierè, Blackmon's family photos assert that much more is going on than we might otherwise have imagined in the Oz-like archipelagos of twenty-first-century suburbia.

On the surface of these large-format, color-saturated portraits of Blackmon's extended family, all seems well enough, even humorous. That is, until we look harder at the realities, which suddenly become the analytical equivalent of hitting a hornet's nest with a hammer. Rooms seemingly built on sunshine and flattened shadows wryly evoke the totalitarian semiotics of vast housing tracts ruled by commodity-obsessed children, either sleepwalking or stampeding through their own utopias. This is the home as simulacrum;

a stage-set idealized by swimming pools, world-class art, exotic shrubbery, an endless supply of props, candy and toys, and gobs of avant-garde "livability."€

Blackmon's subjects are embalmed in every illusion of upper-middle-class normality. But the regulatory poetics of absence, which rely on compositional laws to show a missing presence, come into great effect here, and, in just about every image, adults appear to be superfluous to the master plan of this provocative gaggle of handsome little citizens. Furthermore, the estrangement of the photographer's eye registers much of this work in the same vein as those great "testimonials against forgetting"€ of the Enlightenment: taxonomic explosions of landscape painting and memorial cataloguing of flora and fauna, lifestyles and environments, in competition with the capitalist strategies of urbanization that had, unwittingly, slated the world for death. It is perhaps most telling that the family is now the most photographed subject of them all, by professionals and amateurs alike.

As critic Fred Ritchin once said, photography's real function has never been "the telling of unmediated truths, but rather its engagement in a dialectic with human beings."€ These detonations that Blackmon presents as family photographs are striking for their mimicking of the large-scale, skillful avoidance techniques we've internalized to the point of saturation: where human beings are recast as powerful cartoon avatars in a corporate-sponsored drama that seems "real"€-but is more cleanly composed, livelier, and better lit than life.