In the hierarchy of values, materials such as ink, marble, uranium, and gold are worth less than the alchemical power of art. And art, in turn, is less valuable than life. This may help explain why the collages of Liberty Blake, though made of paper—and often of discarded and salvaged paper at that—are worth more than gold. After all, for most of us, gold is a relatively inert, if attractive material that refers primarily to itself, while paper is not only one of the more versatile materials in art, but takes part in, and even enables, our lives in so many ways, ranking just below fire and the wheel in terms of its importance in those lives. Sometimes higher.
That said, Blake’s art finds itself at a disadvantage in the gallery, even at Phillips, where 24 of her major works (and eight literally “minor” ones) are currently displayed. There is simply no getting around the fact that each of these marvels responds best to undivided attention. The pull of the next one along the wall, and perhaps the eagerness of the viewer next to us, exert an unhelpful pressure to hasten on, before this one has fully disclosed its magic. Not that they resist self-revelation; it’s we who need time to recognize and identify these abstractly-represented, but almost always familiar items. Time spent viewing is, of course, the gold standard in art.
Take “Window,” for example. Five almost anonymous pieces of wall-like paper form a rectangular opening. Even if not hung by a professional, it would be clear which way is up from the stains and smudges at the bottom, below the window. The view to the outside observes the classic rules of landscape painting: the foreground is the color of “a mellow violin,” a rule that was universally cited in spite of everyone’s knowing it was only subjectively true. Over a narrow fence, the neighbor’s lawn is a deeper green. His house, with the path to the door rendered by the word “GRAND,” is bordered by a shed on the left and possibly a doghouse on the right. Finally, thanks to height limits, a bit of the sky appears at top. While these are only one person’s readings, viewers are encouraged to find their own, while acknowledging the remarkable representation of the patina, scuff marks and whatnot of life, created here by the very real accidents acquired by these assorted papers during their previous lives.
Blake estimates that the majority of her works are landscapes, which she defines as “an emotional response to a place or situation.” So gravity and its clues are important as well as reassuring. By those standards, “I Love You, I Love You” is a landscape, though it’s almost certainly a figure within a landscape. The unmistakeable presence of the horizon locates the brown clad, winking lover in a somewhat less Romantic landscape than Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy crosses to meet Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett in the climactic scene of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, but it is a landscape nonetheless. And anything more than a casual glance will reveal how the successive, overlapping layers of “Talus” start out closest at the bottom, moving further away as they rise, precisely as happens in a sloping pile of rocky debris.
Quite a few of the works at Phillips are appropriately from her most recent series, titled “Radiant Crown.” These appeared—through the unconscious and mysterious processes by which the artist’s mind necessarily gifts the artist with meaningful images—while she was thinking about, and hoping to understand, the ways humans connect to each other, communicating through “neural synchrony, body language, empathy, telepathy, and duality.” That these avenues can be genuine is shown by comparing “Wishing,” in which a couple who have their backs turned to each other are connected by the union of their crowns, with the increasingly familiar images of a pair of Performance artists who have braided their hair together to force themselves to cooperate. Surely romantic love, or even lust, is one of the more demanding collaborations in life.
It would be a mistake, of course, to conclude that all Blake’s images are visual tropes; some are also, or are exclusively, metaphorical. The two heads in “Two For Tonight” have something in common, but it might just as well be a role they share: consecutive dates, say, or some other psychic connection. The difference in their hues might be an intervention by the artist, or perhaps a gift from the collage gods, but it surely means something.
The process outlined here, in which the artist trusts that what she dwells upon will not only impact her viewing, reading, conversation, and other conscious activities, but determine to a large extent what captures her attention as she goes about her daily activities, including curating her paper collection, means that the connection between them may not always be literal, or even apparent. But it will be there. The Surrealists, some of the most advanced practitioners in the history of art, vied with each other to spontaneously produce the most extreme images, doing so in the belief that their unconscious minds would keep them relevant. Liberty Blake’s parents, both very well known Pop artists, manipulate the images of celebrities in order to trigger associations with them in the public mind. But it’s Liberty, who hikes and mountain bikes throughout Utah, and brings home vivid memories of what she encounters, with whom we have the most intimate, unconscious connections, and with a little study, her constructions made from found paper relics of this place will unfold in our minds and make the most satisfying, further connections.
Postscript: Liberty Blake trained as a painter, but switched to a safer medium when she undertook to raise children. That’s not the entire story, though: she also wanted work she could pack up and take with her on the road. In solidarity with her desires, she offers a number of collages designed to appeal to young persons starting their own collections. Eight such “minor” works are available at Phillips this month.
Liberty Blake, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Feb. 10