“a test for full system manipulation”

by Whitney Huber

Neue, a solo exhibition of the work of interdisciplinary artist Lee Blalock is currently on display at the Hyde Park Art Center through June 23, with a performance and discussion to be held on May 18, 3-5pm. Blalock’s body of work and website appear extensive and impressive. For the purposes of this review, I mostly avoided them in order to focus on the work in Neue as experienced at HPAC. Neue includes sculptural elements, objects, two dimensional works, video, sound, electronic and digital technologies, such as QR codes and animation software. All but one of the works are made in a palette largely of black, white, and gray, and a number of elements are repeated across works, which gives the effect of one work bleeding into the next. In this way, Blalock’s work makes the most of its somewhat awkward exhibition space. All of the work exhibited dates to 2013 and reflects a diligent and cohesive pursuit of focused ideas.

Text available at HPAC explains that Blalock’s work in Neue “explores the mechanics of prosthetics” and “how rhythm and movement can be interpreted through body amplification and prosthetics.”[1] The intent to consider the body in light of technology is evident throughout the exhibition. Most of the works combine a figural or interactive element with a more “technical” element. The poetic and critical questioning of combinations of the body and technology is more provocative in some works than others.

ctrlr.H.rt #115

A series of four sculptures (ctrlr.H.rt #113, ctrlr.H.rt #114, ctrlr.H.rt #115, ctrlr.H.rt #116)  of life-sized hands cast in resin and painted white sit within Plexiglas boxes alternately holding or plucking music box mechanisms. The wrists of each sculpted hand are sliced into oval-shaped parts that are rotated off the wrist’s center, reminiscent of Dadaist or Surrealist body/machine imagery. A knob projects out from the outer palm of each hand. But where is the prosthesis here? These hands, wrists, and knobs do not move and have no means of connecting to or extending the body. They rest inside Plexiglas boxes, etched with markings representing something like those of a heartbeat monitor or a seismograph. The four sculptural elements are accompanied by four QR codes and are exhibited alongside a video displaying two actual hands unfurling a scroll of paper (apparently used in the music box mechanisms) from what appears to be the mouth of the hands’ owner. The QR codes link to beautiful and provocative abstract figurative videos (available on the artist’s website), perhaps documenting a dance or performance. These images are aesthetically similar to figurative elements in other works in the gallery, but they seem obliquely related to the ctrlr.H.rt sculptures, and we are left to fill in many gaps. While intriguingly minimal and poetic, all of these elements combined leave me somewhat confused and unclear. The technologies and bodily interactions invoked point to body/machine integration, but the references are asynchronous (modern? contemporary? mechanical? digital?) in a way that is perhaps a bit too ambiguous. They just begin to depict what is more embodied by other works in the exhibition.

illustration detail

Blalock’s more two-dimensional works (digital illustration and drawing), some combined with sound and video, are accomplished in technique. I find many riveting details where textual language morphs into the language of digital code or in words written in chalk but effaced through the repetition of writing until they transform into images of some high-tech fiber optic landscape. Of these works, I am most intrigued by the drawings made with prosthetics, NeueBody Drawing Series, Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Yet, I want to see the prosthetics, or perhaps even make marks with them myself, in order to truly ponder what makes these prosthetic drawings more or less technological, more or less futuristic, than any other kind of drawing, such as a stick in sand.

music box scroll

What I seek most in Blalock’s investigation of technology and body is embodiment, and it’s ironic that it seems most readily available in the two works incorporating computer technology, Render Loop 2 and Stereo Test No. 1. Both of these include photographic representations of a human body that is not easy to categorize ethnically or in terms of gender. This allows questions of identity and manipulation to surface in a “higher” tech conversation. Render Loop 2 features a software program that allows the viewer to “conjure”, “kill”, and manipulate the image of a twirling female dancer and to control a “virtual music box” (unfortunately, this was not functioning – or was it?). An actual crankable music box sits nearby within an acrylic box, along with slotted scrolls of silent music that appear to have piled up and stretch down the hallway. This work is visually and verbally engaging, but the role of viewer interaction is not clearly defined, and the malfunctioning music box underscores the strange effect of the numerous music boxes included in the exhibition, all of which are effectively silent. Stereo Test No. 1 is a haunting video work – in my humble opinion, the most conceptually complete, compellingly futuristic and seemingly autobiographical work in the exhibition.

What is most compelling for me about this body of work are the implications for identity as technologies of the body move forward in unmeasured bursts and regressions. Blalock’s stated love of Speculative Fiction and interest in the “future superbody” and “the possibility of a body without race, gender, or biological deficiency” are most visible for me in Render Loop 2 and Stereo Test No. 1.[2] In this context, the exhibition’s title Neue, from the German, entertains a futurist polemic that is seemingly liberatory and potentially terrifying. My own strong attraction to the two works most directly engaging human identity suggests to me that such a possibility is, if anything, a distant future one that we may not be ready for. And, we certainly don’t know if its desirable. The subtlety needed to introduce such utopian/dystopian ideas about race and gender without causing offense or outrage makes me look forward to the future work of this artist.

[1] Hyde Park Art Center: http://www.hydeparkart.org/exhibitions/lee-blalock-emneueem

[2] Hyde Park Art Center: http://www.hydeparkart.org/exhibitions/lee-blalock-emneueem

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