Arlington, Texas

Ed Blackburn

Center for Research in Contemporary Art

Ed Blackburn’s bible paintings place us in a quandary because of their seeming straightforwardness. Few modes of discourse are as instantly suspect. Politicians, evangelists, and advertisers have hopelessly compromised their earnestness in public address. Since these works look at first glance like blowups of the simple illustrations in Sunday-school workbooks, it is possible that the artist is somehow serious about all this. This instantly makes the viewer—this viewer, anyway—suspicious.

Blackburn does not tackle major theological mysteries in these paintings. He forgoes the nativity, crucifixion, and resurrection in favor of those stories that are childhood favorites. He gives us David and Goliath, 1987–88, Cain and Abel, 1988, and Joseph and the Pharaoh’s Dream, 1989, rendering them in a bright, coloring-book style. This approach seems calculated to return us to when we first learned the stories, only to remind us of the distance that now separates us from that time. We are not, however, left in a position to contemplate the distance traversed. Blackburn manages to immerse us once again in the narratives.

Blackburn’s paintings are actually far removed from the deadly dull piety of illustrated bible stories. They have, instead, the dynamic graphic quality of the best comic strips. In Jesus and the Money Changers, 1989, tables are overturned, birds and coins are put into flight, money changers flee, and an enraged Pharisee starts from his thronelike chair. Blackburn’s graphic technique can also distill stories into a single crucial moment of decision. As David glances over his shoulder, he weighs both the stone in his hand and his chances against the giant we see in the distance. A Neanderthalish Cain, club in hand, seethes with anger as he crouches behind a bush and watches his brother.

Blackburn paints like a child who stays within the lines of his coloring book but perversely chooses the wrong colors. Cain has blue hair and magenta skin, the Sea of Galilee is forest green, and the skies are often pumpkin. Such color choices do nothing really for the expressiveness of the paintings; they simply keep the work strange. Like so much else in the paintings, however, the color is so consistently strange as to be essentially unobtrusive; this unobtrusive strangeness is central to their success. Blackburn establishes himself as a master of the deadpan—the perfectly expressionless face that places the burden of response on the audience. Having delivered the paintings, Blackburn now seems willing to wait for the viewer to break the silence. In such a situation, the initial reaction is often a nervous titter. We have to work through the art history, religious hang-ups, and stylistic prejudices that prevent us from reliving these narratives of courage, betrayal, and faith.

Charles Dee Mitchell