On ViewGalerie Eva Presenhuber
February 27 – Apr 10, 2021
Lucas Blalock’s second solo show at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Florida, 1989, achieves that difficult balance of being an intensely personal show that resonates beyond the private symbols and winks embedded in its photographs and sculptures. The exhibition is a journey back to a moment in the artist’s childhood, when his thumb was crushed while on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyworld. In a successful experimental surgery, Blalock’s big toe was transplanted onto his hand to replace his thumb. In a painfully literal analogy, the “cutting and pasting” from one digit to another is linked to Blalock’s signature photographic practice of using digital cut and paste Photoshop techniques to create his images.
Not all of the photographs in the show seem to be digitally manipulated, although all appear carefully staged. The Floridian (Urodisny) (2017–2020), for example, shows us a notecard with wave-like lines resting gently on a triangular, sail-like shape. Atop this is a pink, gently ridged object that appears to be foam or rubber. The scene is shot in bright, sunny light. It has an ethereal, dreamlike quality, like a child’s slightly out of order imagining of a sailboat. Or, perhaps, the pink wedge represents the crushed digit of a boy’s hand.
Classic Freudian theories like displacement (where the traumatic moment is displaced onto a related but less threatening image) or condensation (where multiple phenomena are condensed into a single image) are the dream-based strategies of the psyche to avoid confronting a trauma. Freud also found them frequently doing the same work in everyday life, with trauma often appearing through humor. Blalock’s photographs are full of the everyday impact of jokes and dreams, which they insistently literalize. The mangled thumb is the sailboat, at least in the sense that there is no history of the thumb without the crushing impact. The big toe becoming the thumb is only the most obvious instance of a process that is happening all the time. Displacement and condensation are not just what happens in dreams. They are part of the world, too, and photographic manipulation can help us see it. Photography, Blalock has said, is not just a window onto a given reality, but “a window onto a space cohabitating elements of the material and the virtual.” If we are going to see the world as it is, we are going to have to see how much more is there than meets the eye.
This is not just with regard to our personal psyches, but also our politics. Much of what the contemporary economy does, after all, is hide the labor done by humans and by nature to feed our ever-growing desires. Consumers see a few clicks on an online shopping cart; not the long histories of natural and human exploitation that lead to the delivery. Blalock’s digital manipulations are subtle ways of revealing these hidden costs that trouble artistic production as much as any other industry. In Reverse Titanic / Hell is in the Air (2019), for example, two disembodied plastic fish heads are placed in a kissing position behind a fish net. The amusing embrace is undercut by the speckled bits of scale that are digitally reproduced behind them, reminding us that these are not only severed body parts, but the products of cheap labor and toxic materials. What, after all, is a greater displacement than the severing in most people’s minds of plastic from its material base as a petroleum product? And what could condense more about all that is modern and terrifying than oil?
The childlike joke of mashing two fish heads together in a romantic embrace thus works to reveal how sinister these funny objects have always been, whether we see them as such or not. The title is suggestive of this plastic and petroleum concern, and I can imagine the image as a comment on global heating—no more icebergs for the Titanic to hit, but that certainly doesn’t make the scenario less hellish. Romance in the blockbuster film Titanic takes place against the backdrop of the destructive power of nature and a highly romanticized vision of working-class labor. In Reverse Titanic, a more realistic and punishing vision of cheap labor shows that romance (or at least procreation) may soon be unable to take place because of the destructive power of humans. As the dead fish rise to the surface of the water (in a literal reverse movement of the Titanic), their reproductive potential is reduced to a twisted joke.
This damage to nature through unsafe and unequal labor may similarly affect human procreation, as we see in Single Father (2020), where a brazenly phallic hot dog lies limp while attached to machinery. A floating sheet of bubble wrap in the foreground (providing no actual cushion or support) underscores again the omnipresence of plastic. The photograph is hung in the gallery’s basement. Walking down into it feels like entering someone else’s unconscious. Blalock experiments here with three rotating sculptures displaying his head, a potato, and a fish. The endless rotations give that psychoanalytic sense of the repetition of trauma as the artist’s head keeps seeing histories that he is forced to turn away from before he can understand. And all of this gets mixed up with the plagued desires of puberty that are manifested on the walls through some of the show’s most overtly sexual images. Next to Single Father, for example, is Squirrel, multigraph (2020), where several kitsch squirrel statues stick their rumpuses in the air. The photographs hang strangely next to each other, almost like awkward teenagers standing against a wall, full of drives they don’t understand and cultural claims about the meaning of sexuality that are more likely to lead to abuse than to the fulfillment of desire.
Walking back up the stairs, one might look for a hopeful moment of grafting, to see how the artist’s body made whole by the transplantation of his thumb can lead to some more general resolution of childhood trauma. Instead one is met by Dirt, Was (2020). The absent form impressed on the dirt evokes a body or object that may have been laying there. I also see in it a crumbling wall from somewhere like Lascaux, an imagined future when the paintings of the cave wall have been eroded back to dirt. It feels like a highly symbolic moment in a highly symbolic show, where the viewer, ascending from the basement of confused desire, returns to face not the illumination of rational thought, nor the wondrous creativity of artistic sublimation, but only the crumbled earth. Shaken, I look to my left and there is Reverse Titanic / Hell is in the Air. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how these fish heads seem to portend the apocalypse, and yet, seeing their off-kilter embrace, I cannot help but laugh.