In the months leading up to his suicide, multi-media artist Jeremy Blake became notorious for being erratic and paranoid. He and his girlfriend, Theresa Duncan, also an artist, were becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea that the Church of Scientology had created a vast and dangerous conspiracy against them. While their friends and family were concerned for the couple’s well being, none could have predicted that within just one week of the other- Duncan on July 10th and Blake on July 17th, 2007- both would take their own lives.
Some argue that Duncan impressed her own psychological issues onto Blake because of professional jealousies and delusions. Blake’s career had been on a steady upward trajectory in the early 2000s while Duncan suffered one professional disappointment after the other. Blake had become a bit of a darling in the indie arts scene; Beck had commissioned Blake to create the art for his 2002 album, Sea Change, which features four different photographs of Beck digitally manipulated by Blake to create a beautifully whimsical series of portraits.
Blake was also responsible for creating the trippy effects of the visual interludes in the Paul Thomas Anderson film Punch Drunk Love. These colorful, fever dreamy images are wholly Blake in their style. The effect is something like an LSD trip gone right; the kaleidoscopic colors and shapes melt together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Much like Mark Rothko’s color field paintings, Blake’s “moving paintings” elicit emotion from the viewer but not in a didactic or bossy way; Blake guides and suggests but allows you to experience the work on your own terms.
In 2003, Blake began a new, three-part series of moving paintings, with each painting serving as a portrait of a particular artist whose life is notable within the pop culture landscape. The first one Blake completed was Reading Ossie Clark (2003). Blake was fascinated with the celebrated Swinging 60’s London fashion designer; both with his tumultuous personal life (Clark was stabbed to death by his partner in 1996) and with his significant role in the fashion and culture of the 1960s. Blake incorporated painting, drawing, video and still photography to create his visual biographies. For Reading Ossie Clark, he had art world darling Clarissa Dalrymple narrate a prose poem inspired by fragments of Ossie Clark’s personal diary to accompany the dazzling, neon imagery. The nine minute artwork plays like a hallucination that takes you back to the 1960s- it’s all wide-eyed ingÈnues with cat-eye eyeliner, Ossie Clark floral fabrics, cool 60s cars mixed with rainbows, flowers and abstracted morphing shapes. Did I mention Blake’s work is trippy?
Sodium Fox, 2005, is the second work in the hat trick and is also the most disturbing of the three. While Reading Ossie Clark is as large and flashy as Sodium Fox, it feels more celebratory and less subversive. And while the narration of Glitterbest, the third and final portrait, parallels the same unsettling tone of Sodium Fox, its imagery is less frenzied. No, it is Sodium Fox, the meditation on the poet and musician David Berman that so deftly and quickly creates a feeling of the need for air, of sunshine, of silence. Berman himself narrates the piece and does so in a clipped, creepy and unrelenting way. There’s a feeling of paranoia that’s pervasive throughout Sodium Fox, and Blake himself wrote that the narrative of Sodium Fox is a fight between one man’s internal landscape and the evil, soul-crushing rise of the McMansion, superstore and reality show. The narrator is lonely and lost, “just looking for a life-long conversation with one person.” The imagery, while more sinister in content (there is a floating skull, dismembered, bloody fingers and eyeballs, and an image of Abraham Lincoln with zombie eyes), the visuals echo those of Reading. Blake loves juxtaposing neon with black and white and distorting realistic paintings with swirling colors that evoke an oil spill.
Unfortunately, Glitterbest, the final installment of the series, is left unfinished, as Blake took his life before its completion. Glitterbest was to follow the same framework as Sodium Fox; Blake would create a world of images and text around the life of punk rocker Malcolm McLaren with McLaren narrating. While he was in the process of putting Glitterbest together, Blake was also planning the intimate, thematic show, Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Glitterbest was to be the final piece of the show’s puzzle, and while his untimely death put a pall over the opening of the show, the Corcoran curators made the decision to go ahead with the exhibition and include Glitterbest in its unfinished state. The result was a revealing, moving and powerful meditation not just on Blake’s subjects, but also of Blake himself. The visitor wonders if an artist can completely extract their own psyche from their meditation on another person?