It is characteristic for Gentry Blackburn to undervalue her own work. This is not surprising, as her pieces, unique and surprising to the outside viewer, emanate from a world that seems all too natural for Blackburn. This is a world spiced with tin lunch pails, piles of aging LPs, vintage furniture, even a vintage storefront pony ride to accompany her and her guests who sit on 1980’s vinyl chairs on the front porch. The paintings she is currently working on, for a show at Kayo Gallery this month, are a series of images of figures from 1980’s popular culture Blackburn calls “uniconic icons.” For Blackburn, what she paints is an extension of herself, for others it is a flight of fantasy into nostalgic regions of yesteryear.
In showing at Kayo Gallery, Blackburn returns to a space that she made her own for 5 years. “It was like people were walking into me, into my world,” she says of Frosty Darling, the retail space she maintained on Broadway, now occupied by Kayo Gallery. “It made it kind of emotional at times… it was like walking into my living room.” The store featured art, candy, clothes and handmade gifts, in a setting described by the store’s website as a “western-pop microcosm that seamlessly fuses old-time, state fair wholesomeness with a strange Warhol art aesthetic.”
Retail is hard work, and becomes even more complicated when the owner is invested in the merchandise the way Blackburn was. “It was an extension of me and I wanted everyone to love it; I took the criticism as a direct reflection. Retail is hard but it especially hard when you feel like people are judging you.” Frosty Darling had a strong local following, for which Blackburn says she is grateful, but it is difficult to stay in business serving a small if loyal clientele. “I love the store; it broke my heart to close it. Sometimes when the lighting was just right it looked so cute; I was really proud of it, it was just extremely stressful. I couldn’t sleep at night… and now that it’s closed… it’s a melancholy relief.”
Since closing the store, Blackburn says Frosty Darling has been in hiatus. “I think of Frosty Darling as my crafting persona. The label is kind of a gift I gave to myself as I continue on. Crafting is still important to me, I’m working on the paintings right now,|1| but I’ll always want to make things and sew.”
The paintings she is working on now are small-scale but beautifully rendered canvases. “I do it cute, I do it well,” says Blackburn.|2| “I want it to be something someone would want. They are earnest little paintings.” The work is marvelously and thoughtfully composed, they are carefully and meaningfully presented, and the manner in which Blackburn renders them lends a characteristic look that adds a further dimension to the ‘80s “unicons” she paints.
Why Blackburn has chosen these subjects and why nostalgia is so fundamental to her creative world has deep roots, nothing to be taken without the utmost gravity — such gravitas ironically taboo in the laissez-faire world of Frosty Darling. In her own manner of speaking, Blackburn says of her retro interest, “It feels like old friends. It feels like going back to your parents home and finding your old sleeping bag that you went to slumber parties in.” This is a comfort, and moreover, a sense of security in an unsecure world that, says Blackburn, is a decisive reason for her sense of nostalgia — particularly the 1980s, the decade she grew up in, the decade that offered her the most security, that directs her work and infuses her life. “It’s like hanging up family portraits,” she says, “There’s a comfort to it.”
Blackburn’s own family life began in Heber, where her mother has been an art teacher for 31 years. Consequently, studying painting when she went to the U made perfect sense, and in 2003 she graduated with her BFA. But for the five year run of Frosty Darling, she has worked as a librarian since she was 18, enjoying being around old books. “I’ve always loved old things. I would much rather have vintage than the newest model. I just don’t get why people always need to cycle through their material possessions. The newest thing has never appealed to me. It has always been the treasure . . . and it just looks good.” This penchant for the retro has been both professional and personal. “When you are thirteen years old and you are trying to reinvent yourself but you don’t have any money, you have to go to the thrift store or rummage through your grandparents basement or make your own clothes… and that is where I learned to sew.” These sartorial skills were key to Frosty Darling, where she sold clothing, handbags, and other crafted items. She also sold her paintings in the store. “Painting is the thing, having done it, that makes me feel like ‘wow, this is what I do!’ A sense of accomplishment keeps you sane. Frosty Darling necessitated my work getting small, because of the limited space. It’s a brainstorming session of meaning to me.”
Blackburn’s uniconic icons from the ‘80s resist the stand out iconic figures from television, film and music that much of the media has since emblazoned on our mind to define the 1980s. It was a time when “Video Killed the Radio Star” and MTV gave new meaning and status to pop celebrity; film invented the sequel promising our beloved figures would appear again and again; and all facets of life were made laughable in the lovable characters of situation comedies. But Madonna, Harrison Ford and Bill Cosby are not on Blackburn’s radar.
“It’s hard to be iconic but not overly iconic,” says Blackburn. “I try to pick subjects that make you ask ‘Who was that?’ and many won’t know. I’m doing ‘Who’s the Boss’ right now and I’m not doing Tony Danza but I’m doing Mona… it’s iconic… but not quite. ” And there is good reason for this. In choosing subjects of this nature, Blackburn creates a sense of realism and a quality of immediacy that fills in the blanks, answers questions and closes the gap for a scope of total authenticity. By focusing solely on the Tony Danzas and not the Monas one focuses on super-images of super-stars, shattering authenticity and a sense of realism.
Blackburn goes to great length to find images that “don’t look like the first image you would find on a Google search. It’s hard to find references. It’s hard to find the right image. I think of them as portraits, compositions, like a family picture. I want them to be the kind of paintings where if you love ‘Cagney and Lacey’ you are going to die if you don’t have this one. I try to find those images where people just have to have it, they say ‘This would be perfect for the bathroom.’”
The comfort Blackburn seeks and the comfort she hopes to convey with these images is a comfort that comes with recognition of, “I remember that episode! That feeling is satisfying,” she says, one that embeds with the artist a security and a reality that is stable and real lending the images themselves an astounding temporal presence and verisimilitude.
In one painting, inside an oval scarlet rococo frame, “Lacey” stands on a ladder with a slight smirk while “Cagney” looks over the shoulder of the viewer with a concerted gaze. It is a moment caught in time, frozen and permanent in its quality, unlike a media shot that looses its sense of temporality and becomes subsumed in a now replicated world of the masses of super-icons creating a warped and skewed reality.
In another, Magic Johnson stands with an enormous grin raising a basketball above the heads of reaching jubilant children in a still for an after-school special: “Magic Johnson: Timeout. The Truth About HIV, AIDS and You.”|4| The athletic superstar is iconic enough, but this painting portrays him in a moment infused with complications. Painted with bright colors inside a mint green frame, the painting is a potent moment that well-documents some of the intensity of the 80s, handled with tremendous humanism.
Other figures are certainly less iconic. Who, after all, would remember “Duck Face”? Gentry Blackburn would. This forgettable on and mostly off-again character from “Full House” had a certain charm to Blackburn, who reclaims him in a tiny and lovable portrait, two-inches square.|5| And in another work drawn from the same sitcom, the secondary character “Mona,” played by Judith Light, receives a scolding from her daughter, Angela. But we don’t see a sequined dress, characteristic of the 80s, but a fragment of reality as Blackburn has recalled it.
In her image of Charles Bronson, Blackburn shows him not aiming a handgun and donning a leather jacket but in a very private and personal moment.|6| He is speaking on a pale blue phone receiver, with some show of emotion, and we can see he is shirtless with chestnut hair casually cascading across his brow, caught in a moment of thought, not action. This is the side that Blackburn sees and likes to remember. She rescues him for herself, for her audience, and from the world of lost icons whose distorted world of indulgence and fame is forever superseded by Blackburn’s unicon.
“These are earnest homages,” Blackburn says of her work, without any semblance of affect, but rather acute humility. “Nothing popped-up, Warholed-out or classicized… they are what they are.” This is the world Gentry Blackburn is at home in — a hand-crafted reality she can define and make her own, imbued with a sense of nostalgia but also uniquely grounded in the uniconic. It gives her a unique vantage point to life that is no less real than any lifestyle or perspective. And it guarantees her work a stamp of approval, a number of quality control and a mark of authenticity, from the marvelously talented artist who you may have known in a previous episode as Frosty Darling.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.